Friday, August 8, 2014

Whitman, Dylan and Me: Uncanny Connections

This year I keep running into allusions to Walt Whitman. Just yesterday someone sent me an essay by Philip T. Nemec (on the power of music) that opens with these Whitman references.

One afternoon as a young man, I read the line from a poem in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing”. Mysteriously, this line, a simple statement, overwhelmed me, and tears welled. Its secret power defied rational explanation. After all, at that point, I had never even been in Louisiana or seen a live-oak. Decades later, my son, known more for his athletic prowess than literary sensitivity, faced his first assignment to analyze a poem. To my utter amazement, after searching our shelf of poetry books, he came to me with my dog-eared copy of Leaves of Grass opened to that same poem. Choked with emotion he recited, “I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing.” My son had never been to Louisiana, seen a live-oak, or had the poem read to him. The power of that declarative line locked our two generations together in a deeply felt moment. Not surprisingly, when I read the poem now, I relive that experience with my son. That line and the relationship with my son are permanently bonded.

I know that a brief essay on music should not, in the name of discipline, wander into poetry even if the “Good Gray Poet” titled many of his efforts, “songs,” but this experience with my son is the best example I can dredge up for illustrating what happens to us all with music. I do not offer this as a breakthrough musical insight; rather, I write about it to celebrate its universality, its commonness – the coupling of music to the most intense moments of our lives. It is a Song of Joys to use a Whitman title, and it is an emotion understood everywhere on planet earth.


Because of social media I have re-connected with a friend from high school whom, as chance would have it, owned a home in Fredericksburg just a few houses away from my uncle on the same street. I had driven within spitting distance from his front yard several times in the past few years without knowing it. This was not the only surprise. I learned that Charlie is also an actor who has played the role of Walt Whitman in a one-man show he's performed in the Great Hall of the National Portrait Gallery. Over dinner last spring we discussed, among other things, his strong interest in Whitman and the manner in which the bard was profoundly touched by attending to the needs of the wounded during the American Civil War. You can read here a review that appeared in the Baltimore Sun titled "The Essential Walt Whitman."

Dylan Talks of Whitman, Too
As any regular reader of this blog already knows, I have been a fan and follower of Dylan's music and career for much of my life, writing about him with measured frequency. One result of this is that people like to send me Dylan-themed articles or links to articles that might be of interest to me. And so it is that I was sent this particular Rolling Stone article in the midst of which were statements about Whitman. "Dylan has become our great American poet of drifting, inheriting a baton that was passed from Walt Whitman to Vachel Lindsay to Carl Sandburg to Allen Ginsberg." A few paragraphs later the author elaborates.

When tabulating literary influences, Dylan summons the name Walt Whitman, for Leaves of Grass continues to inspire him. Toward the end of his life, Whitman was preparing a "Death-Bed" edition of Leaves of Grass, reflecting on the indignities and ragged joys of growing old. "I don't think the dream of Whitman has ever been fulfilled," Dylan says. "I don't know if Whitman's spirit is still here. It's hard to say if it holds up except maybe in a nostalgic sense. That westward-expansion thing has been dead for a while now. When Whitman started out, he had such great faith in humankind. His mind must have been destroyed when the War between the States fell at his front door. His vision, which was so massively phallic, suddenly must have become plundered, ruined and emasculated when he saw all that indescribable destruction."

We talk about Whitman serving as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital during the Civil War, draining gangrene from a wounded soldier's limbs. "I think you can see the change in Whitman," Dylan says. "Before that and after that. He had the most grand view of America. Almost like he's America himself. He's just so big, and he's all that there is. The Greek Empire. The Roman Empire. The British Empire. All of European history gone. Whitman is the New World. That's what Whitman is all about. But it isn't the New World anymore. Poor man. He was hounded and mistreated, too, in his lifetime. And ridiculed. Emerson, Thoreau, all those guys, you don't know what they really thought of him."

If any American personifies life on what Whitman called the "open road," it's Bob Dylan. 


But it doesn't stop there. Douglas Brinkley's piece continues.

We talk about Whitman serving as a nurse in a Washington, D.C., hospital during the Civil War, draining gangrene from a wounded soldier's limbs. "I think you can see the change in Whitman," Dylan says. "Before that and after that. He had the most grand view of America. Almost like he's America himself. He's just so big, and he's all that there is. The Greek Empire. The Roman Empire. The British Empire. All of European history gone. Whitman is the New World. That's what Whitman is all about. But it isn't the New World anymore. Poor man. He was hounded and mistreated, too, in his lifetime. And ridiculed. Emerson, Thoreau, all those guys, you don't know what they really thought of him."*

It's as if my friend Charlie got it right. His one-man show zeroes in on a segment of Whitman's life that made a profound impact on the bard, and it never left him. It made me half wonder if Dylan could have been in the audience for one of Charlie's shows.

Now for one more interesting twist to this story. During our Dylan Days in May I curated an art show featuring art inspired by Dylan and his music. I sold a couple of pieces from that show, portraits I'd done of Dylan, but one was too large to fit in my car and it had to be delivered to Minneapolis. I posted a note on Facebook hoping to find someone willing to transport it. The gentleman who agreed to help happened to be a book publisher, Jim Perlman of Holy Cow! Press. When we met to make the exchange he left me with a newly updated version of one of the most significant books on Whitman in print today, Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. It is a beautiful book. But there's something uncanny how many ways Whitman has been popping up on my radar this year.

And yes, I've started reading the book. I'll be sharing more on this sometime soon.

* Read Bob Dylan's Late-Era Old Style American Individualism at Rolling Stone online.]

EdNote: Tomorrow evening in St. Louis Park there will be another Salute to the Music of Bob Dylan, a free concert fund-raiser for Guitars for Vets. The Wednesday show was fabulous I hear.

1 comment:

Seeking Understanding said...

"But I know I can never leave them"
Whitman from Memorada during the War, after seeing the carnage of wounded men in the Lacy House on the Rappahanock River, Dec 19, 1862