Musical Space: Poets Turned Musicians

Sep 27, 2016

A new vinyl release of groundbreaking tape recorder experiments by literary pioneer and Kansas resident William S. Burroughs got me thinking about how words and music have always been interdependent. A musician who write songs necessarily becomes a poet. It’s interesting to me, though, that the direction can go the other way, when poets and authors undertake musical projects. 

Lots of times it ends up being a spoken word recitation with musical accompaniment. This is a broad category spanning everything from Homer’s Odyssey to hip hop. Burroughs himself did musical collaborations with the generations of recording artists that he influenced: Laurie Anderson, Sonic Youth, Ministry, Kurt Cobain, and dozens of others.

Langston Hughes predated the beats, reciting to the accompaniment of Charles Mingus. Gil Scott-Heron continued to raise social consciousness with “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” Some call him the “father of rap,” although he’s using a live band, not breakbeats. All rap is, of course, poetry, so of all the rappers I could name, I’ll mention Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey. His poem “One Called Trill” was recently published in The Paris Review.

Other poets dare sing. Leonard Cohen was a published poet well before he began doing music, as was Patti Smith. Smith was a friend of Alan Ginsberg - the evolutionary link between the beats and punk rock. She was also the one who encouraged literary lion Jim Carroll to start a band.

I hope artists like these continue to keep the distinction between words and music nice and blurry.

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Listening list for Podcast:

  • Gil Scott-Heron: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
  • William S. Burroughs, “Recalling All Active Agents,” Break Through in Grey Room
  • Laurie Anderson “Sharkey’s Night,” Mister Heartbreak, feat. William Burroughs
  • Material + William S. Burroughs, “Seven Souls,” Seven Souls
  • Leonard Cohen, “Chelsea Hotel #2”
  • The Fall “Garden,” Perverted By Language, a very abstract retelling of the Gethsemane story.
  • Patti Smith, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Twelve, 2007). Amazing on so many levels. Inserts her own poetry into the song. Tears away the grunge trappings of the original, finds the core meaning in a bluegrass context.
  • Langston Hughes with Leonard Feather and Charles Mingus Weary Blues “Blues Montage”
  • Gil-Scott Heron “Whitey on the Moon”
  • Mos Def, “Mathematics,” Black on Both Sides
  • Jim Carroll “People Who Died” Catholic Boy
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