A Poet Sings the Blues

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Me & the Originator
By Al Basile
(Sweetspot, 2018, $13.76)

Poet and musician Al Basile has come up with an interesting concept for his latest CD, Me & the Originator: a story told through an alternation of thirteen poems and twelve songs. Yet this concept may not be the most interesting thing about the project.

The poems on the CD relate the fictional, first-person narrative of a bluesman who finds an old trunk with some lyrics in it (author unknown). Admiring them, he sets them to music: these settings are the songs (actually written by Basile, of course) on the CD.  Basile recites the CD’s poems—which cover episodes from, and reflections on, the bluesman’s life—in the bluesman’s voice, a feat of ventriloquism he brings off with startling verisimilitude. Basile also sings the songs on the CD, and his bluesy rendition of these numbers is as accomplished as his reciting of the poems. The songs are accompanied by a small jazz ensemble featuring Basile himself on cornet, a role at which he also excels (talk about a triple-threat!).  All the musicians on the CD are masters of their “axes;” in fact the whole production—Basile’s poems and songs, the performances, the recording quality, even the beautiful packaging of the CD and its accompanying booklet of poems and lyrics—is wholly professional in every respect.

The poems on the CD are formal. Most are in blank verse, the remainder (with the exception of a sonnet) being in rhymed-and-metered nonce forms: in all of them, the prosody is skillfully handled.  The blank verse poems are often enjambed, as befits their representation of actual speech. In reciting them, Basile rides properly and naturalistically over the enjambed line endings. The downside of this choice, as always in the recitation of enjambed verse, is that it can make the meter hard to hear (though the problem vanishes when one follows along with the texts in the CD’s booklet). The bluesman’s language sticks mainly and suitably to the demotic. The same holds, as one would expect, for the found lyrics the bluesman sets to music: Basile isn’t trying for anything startling or outre in these down-to-earth verses; he’s trying, rather, to wring power, as blues-lyrics generally do, from a tried-and-true simplicity that might sometimes seem clichéd in a more rarefied, “literary” context. At its best, his approach packs a punch that’s harder to land than it might seem:

I really should know better
I don’t have a good excuse
Cause she made me an offer
That was easy to refuse
When the time came to quit the game
I found I couldn’t leave it
…… And all along I knew
…… What she was saying wasn’t true
…… But she made me believe it.

As with the words on the CD, so with the music: none of it is the least bit outlandish. Basile’s songs, and their arrangements, are right down the center lane of modern blues. The melodies of these songs seem meant less to be arresting in and of themselves than, as with many blues tunes, to serve as compellingly soulful vehicles for the delivery of their words’ burden. The blues idiom of the music isn’t “pure” but, as with most blues today, jazz-inflected. In fact this idiom might be viewed as an object lesson in the emergence of jazz from blues, the former being caught in the act of complicating the latter. The CD’s jazz aspect is most evident in some unexpected harmonic “changes.” (I actually wouldn’t have minded more of them, but this preference is a matter of personal taste.  Many blues aficionados are more than content with the genre’s traditional chord progressions.) As with innovative harmony, so, in these songs, with jazz’s more overt brand of instrumental virtuosity. I was hoping for some flourishes of rapid passagework (this hope being, again, a matter of personal taste), but none were forthcoming. That said, all of the playing here is, within its somewhat narrow technical bounds, exemplary: smooth, tasteful, subtly inventive—much harder to do than it sounds.

The CD’s innovative mix of poetry and music notwithstanding, what stays with me most about Me & the Originator is its narrative premise: that the lyrics of the bluesman’s songs are not his own but someone else’s. It’s a commonplace that the sentiments of the blues are universal: that no one is a stranger to feeling down and out. As the bluesman himself says:

It seems like almost everyone I know
Has got into this rut sometime or other.
You feel like every kind of dope, although
You shouldn’t. Every fool is like another.

You’re human. You were born to take the fall.
Maybe blues is universal after all.

It’s plausible, then, that the bluesman comes to feel, over time, as though he’d written the collection of lyrics-in-the-trunk himself.

[As] the years went on, and I dug deep
…. Into the sheaf of paper I’d discover
……… I came to be the teller of that tale
whose life was indistinguishable from it

Basile’s premise takes a commonplace—the blues’ universality—and instantiates it as a story: the narrative of someone—the bluesman—coming to realize the applicability of another’s blues lyrics to his own experience. (Lyric after lyric in fact corresponds, in a way the bluesman finds uncanny, to incident after incident in the bluesman’s own life.) The effectiveness of this move helps us realize something: that a poetic premise can take on additional power in “descending” from the general to the particular. Me & the Originator also shows (or reminds) us that the little-adorned language of the blues is an essential part of the genre’s relevance to everyone.