Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Merchant of Verses

Back in May, I had the opportunity to attend the annual Convention of the American Library Association, in my capacity as a member of Fordham University's Library Committee, which was a truly marvelous experience, and very educational indeed.  I actually joined the ALA, at the time to get a discount on the registration fee, but I have to say that I'm glad I did, and plan to maintain my membership in the future.

One of the amazing events to take place at this convention was a private concert by Natalie Merchant, whose music I have been a great admirer of for some time now.  It was an absolutely outstanding experience, and what made it particularly interesting was the fact that Merchant had recently released an album with songs based on poetry (I missed the fact of the CD's release earlier, but hey, I'm just not on top of these things anymore).  Here's a PBS Newshour segment about the CD:


At the ALA, along with her performance of selections from the album, she gave brief background biographies of the poets, showed pictures of them on the big screens set up for her (let me emphasize that this was a ballroom set up for lectures, not a large auditorium or concert hall, and I was seated about eight rows away from the stage!), and acknowledged all of the different libraries that helped her in obtaining background information or images.  It was a little funny for me, not being a librarian, to be on the receiving end of her thank yous directed at the librarians, but I found it altogether touching and gracious.  And as you no doubt know, if you've been following me a bit, poetry has been one of my enthusiasms in recent years, so this really resonated with me.

Here are some photos of the performance, courtesy of the ALA:

I just fell in love with the music, and of course, I've since bought the CD,  Leave Your Sleep, which comes with a lovely booklet, and I highly recommend it to you, both for the music, which is varied and wonderful, and for the poetry.  The poetry is childhood-oriented, and includes selections by e. e. cummings, Edward Lear, Ogden Nash, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robert Graves.  It also includes The Blindmen and the Elephant by John Godfrey Saxe, a poem favored by folks attuned to general semantics, for its expression of the ways in which different people abstract different details from the exact same phenomenon.  And it includes Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Jesuit poet that was the subject of Walter Ong's MA thesis, and whose notions of sprung rhythm has been of interest to media ecology scholars.  I also found The Janitor's Boy by Nathalia Crane to be irresistible, not the least for its mentions of Sheepshead Bay, which is in Brooklyn, and an unlikely location for a dessert isle:

That was from a performance in Portland.  I also got a kick out of The Dancing Bear, from a poem by Albert Paine, that's set to Klezmer music.  This video comes from Scottish radio:

And here's a video, in two parts, of Natalie Merchant performing selections from the CD live on BBC Radio this past February.  The sound quality is excellent, but there's not much of her explanations of the background of the pieces, which I very much enjoyed at ALA.

But leave it to good old TED to provide a video that comes the closest to the performance I saw at ALA:

When I got back from the ALA meeting in Washington, DC, I enjoyed talking about what a privilege it was to be there for Natalie Merchant's performance.  But I was surprised to learn that some of the folks I spoke to didn't recognize her name, although after some prompting it was clear that they had heard her music, especially the "thank you" song.  But my favorite of her hits is "Wonder" which doesn't seem to have a video on YouTube, except for live performances, but I rather liked this fan-produced contribution by Sue Shanahan, which is subtitled Girl's Self-Esteem--Down Syndrome:

Yeah, I kinda get teary-eyed, I can't help it, I'm an easy touch, I admit, and this hits very close to home with my own experiences with my daughter's autism.

Anyway, Merchant ended her ALA performance by coming back out for an encore, which in and of itself was awesome, and performing her best known song, "Kind and Generous" (that's the "thank you song").  So, I'm going to end with the video for that one, but I want to direct it back to the singer herself:

Thank YOU, Natalie!

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