Monday, July 2, 2012

July in Oktober: Old Songs, New Songs, 7/ 2

Sometimes you can write a song that makes you wonder how you ever gathered the fine, golden threads together: it feels like divine inspiration when it comes, and yet if you know yourself well, you can trace the footprints of your weird mind backwards (or sideways) to the source/s.

These two songs are like that, in their different ways. The first came in a burst of inspiration during a rehearsal with my long-time songwriting partner less than a month after my first FAWM, the second during a prolonged stretch of songwriting in the airy summer challenge of the 50/90.

I hope one, or both, speak to you.


 This song was written soon after President Obama took office. J. and I, who've worked together musically since the early 90's, were having a band rehearsal that March, when he showed me one of his new guitar riffs. I asked him to play it again, over and over, and in a short stint of frenetic transcribing, the lyric was done. We refined it that very week, and have performed it here and there since; but it's still fresh for us, and barely exposed. Let's face it, songs by Transcendental Folk bands in Buffalo, NY, rarely make it past our own suburbs.

 It's called Soldier Song, and reflects my complicated feelings about armed forces-- grateful for what they give, unhappy with them being called to give it. It is topical, but still relevant, I hope. It was a call to better action, and to thought, and a lashing out against idiocies like The Patriot Act. My ambivalence about the war itself, too, is caught here.

 It doesn't just mean standard soldiers, either. Does that come through? I was thinking, in the back bedrooms of my mind, of the mother who had demonstrated against the war in front of the White House after her son was killed in action. Her bold, passionate actions moved me. So did the young soldier that left the war, refusing to go back due to matters of conscience.

With all of these ingredients bubbling around below the surface, the song could have become a mess, scattered in focus; instead the flow was there, right on. It's a song I love to sing around Independence Day.

As in many songs, the impressions cast from the imagery are as important as the rational details of each line-- parts that don't make logical sense, you know?

Soldier Song

The dirt beneath your eyes

In the melting of your life

Gathers in the desert

Of freedoms left behind--

We are trying

To stand and fight

For the prevailing

Of cooler, clearer minds

The shadow of the child

Her dead son used to be

Plays among the ruins

Of cracked democracy--

We are trying

To set it right

In the unveiling

Of cooler, clearer minds

The dirt beneath your eyes

Doesn’t shade you from the blast

Of high ideals that couldn’t last--

You are dying

In generosity

Patching up the walls

Of cracked democracy

Patching up the walls

Of cracked democracy

Patching up the walls

Of cracked democracy

© 2009 by Joe Todaro & Mari Kozlowski


12 years or so ago, I took a lit/writing class called Poetry of the Occult. Great class, sort of co-taught by Blakean scholar Jim Watt and the amazing poetry teacher and poet Fran Quinn. It was a night class, near the end of the week, which I found made for more serious classmates; and when you're in college during your thirties, you want to be in class with other people that are dying to be there, too.

 We focused heavily on Blake, and at some point, the whole class was told we would each have to pick one of the Songs of Innocence & Experience, that were we working through then, and sing it that night, acapella, in front of the rest. Not my cup of jasmine tea!

Unlike my classmates, I was a trained vocalist, and a performing songwriter at the time; but I also had a policy of not performing unless prepared. It can make you look bad.

But there was no choice, that night. I picked a song at random, went through the phrasing in my head, and when my turn came, shocked the shit out of the entire class (and probably the surrounding classrooms, due to my volume) by singing a nearly operatic, pretty and high melody to Ah, Sunflower:

Ah Sunflower

Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,

Who countest the steps of the Sun:

Seeking after that sweet golden clime

Where the traveller's journey is done;

Where the Youth pined away with desire,

And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow

Arise from their graves and aspire

Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.

--William Blake

 I'd been nervous, but it was an easy melody to write, and came out perfectly. The class was stone silent for a minute, staring at me, and then Jim said something like "Well, that raises the ante," or some such. Then, "Who's next?" A brave girl with not much vocal ability plowed through hers, and got a good response. After the class, people surrounded me, asking questions and giving compliments and so on.

 I always loved that song of Blake's, and one soft afternoon during a songwriting marathon, I accidentally began paying tribute to it. It expanded, the meanings shifted, and instead of a rumination on life eternal, it became more of meditation on lost youth and beauty, framed in a sort of fairy-tale, ripe with garden metaphor. It's full of memories, for me, and no one else has ever heard it, yet.


Ahh, Sunflower, why you bother reaching?

Don't you know the squirrel prince is stalking you?
He seeks your tender middle
Your seeds will never harden--
Your children will be squirrels that eat your cousins

Lemon petals gild the grass, now
Your bright face is bowed beneath the weight
Afternoon is your last moment
To count out steps to the sun

Ahh, Sunflower, the bee and bird did love you
In their flittered ways to rile you
Turning your flushed virgin looks towards the ground
Was almost done without violence

Lemon petals gild the grass, now
Your face is bowed to share the guilt
This afternoon is your last moment
To count steps to the sun
To count out steps to the sun

Ahh, Sunflower, have pity on your suitors
The pale youth in his watered down morality
Small and scratching wanderers who never asked your name
The rushing breeze that took your scent for his own consolation

All they wanted was your freshness
And your budded smile

You wished
You wished for
Sweet gold-kissed air
Dropping lamentations while the sun was in your hair

Ahh, Sunflower, why you bother reaching?
All that made you beautiful is gone
Spilled into the bed you made soft with expectation
By friends and strangers

Ahh, Sunflower
Don't linger out of your season

© 2010 by Mari Kozlowski 

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