MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Singer Kris Delmhorst talks about putting new music to old verse. What it's like having Robert Browning and E. E. Cummings as co-writers. That's next, on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
In 1867, George Eliot started a poem this way: Oh may I join the choir invisible, of those immortal dead who live again in minds made better by their presence.
Ms. KRIS DELMHORST (Singer): (Singing) Oh may I join the invisible choir.
BLOCK: Now with some bluesy Dixieland, Kris Delmhorst has turned that into a song.
Ms. DELMHORST: (Singing) I want to join that invisible choir. Made of those sweet immortal voices lift this world up higher.
BLOCK: On Kris Delmhorst's latest CD, each song comes from a poem - from Lord Byron to Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some she takes verbatim and sets to music. For others, she works from the essence of a phrase and turns the poem into something else entirely. She got the idea after reading Robert Browning's A Toccata of Galuppi's. It's Browning's tribute to a Venetian composer.
Ms. DELMHORST: So he wrote this poem about listening to someone play a piece of this guy's music and the way that it brought Venice to life for him. And he could sort of see the whole masked, you know, dances that were going on all night and all these - it was sort of Venice in its heyday. And so it makes him feel old and he thinks about all those people and how they've been dead for so long - and he sort of takes a gloomy turn. But when I read it, it seemed to me like what it really was, was a description of the odd little immortality that art gives people. Because, you know he - in the 19th century - was writing about it, and then I - in the 21st century - was sitting in my living room and picturing it too.
And so, you know, I don't know how much more immortal you could hope to be than that. So I thought it was a pretty cheerful poem and he thought it was about death. And so I sort of decided to make my own take on it.
BLOCK: And you've got a pretty cheery melody.
Ms. DELMHORST: It does, yeah. Yeah.
BLOCK: Why don't you play a little bit of it for us?
Ms. DELMHORST: Sure. Well, the first line of his poem is oh, Galuppi Baldassare, this is very sad to find. I just feel like that - you almost just want to sing it, you know, right there. I changed the words but I came up with:
Ms. DELMHORST: (Singing) Oh, Galuppi Baldassare, though I never knew your name, it's thanks to Mr. Browning you are with us just the same. Thanks to Mr. Browning, blowing on the flame. Well, here you come with your old music and here's all the good it brings. you say they lived like this in Venice when the merchants were the kings, and though I never left old Boston, still you showed me everything.
Ms. DELMHORST: It goes on like that.
BLOCK: Boston not in the original version.
Ms. DELMHORST: Nope. Definitely not.
BLOCK: There's a great thing that happens here because he actually has a verse talking all about chord changes.
Ms. DELMHORST: Yeah. It's amazing.
BLOCK: What more could you ask for?
Ms. DELMHORST: I know. It's like he wrote the song for me right there. Yeah, he talks about those minor thirds - lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished sigh on sigh, told them something. The suspensions, the solutions. Must we die? Those commiserating sevenths. Life might last.
We can but try? So yeah, I pretty much just took those chord changes, I changed a couple of them because you have to eventually make the decisions that make it a better song but -
Ms. DELMHORST: (Singing) A minor third so bitter. Six chord like a scythe. Suspension, solution, asking must we die? Must we die? Must we die? Well, the seventh says well, fellas, life might not last. We can try. So were you happy? I was happy. So happy I can use more kisses, why do we stop them when a million seems so few. There's something in the music, Lord it must be answered to.
BLOCK: When you're taking a poem and changing it a lot, like you do with this one, and really flipping the meaning around - do you stop and think, what will people who really care about Robert Browning think? Do I feel good about this?
Ms. DELMHORST: I did. I had a little moment of thinking about it and when I first started writing it, it really was just for fun so I wasn't thinking about it too much. Then once I realized I was going to make this record, some of the poems I stayed really true to them and some of them I changed quite a bit. And this one, I mean not only did I modernize the language but I also really did change the meaning of it. And so yeah, I hesitated. But I just decided to not be too careful with them and not be too precious about them. I mean, they're not hidden gems, you know? They're all pretty well known works of poetry and they have their own lives and it's not - I don't feel like they're really threatened. There's probably some people that will be bothered by it but I don't think too many.
BLOCK: Yeah. There's a whole range of musical styles here. I mean, there's some sort of Dixieland, bluesy stuff going on, and some pretty straight-ahead folk. When you did the E. E. Cummings poem, Anyone Lived in a Pretty How Town ...
Ms. DELMHORST: Yeah.
BLOCK: How did you figure out that you wanted that to be sort of a, I would call it I guess a country western shuffle.
Ms. DELMHORST: (Singing) Women and men (both little and small) cared for anyone not at all...
Ms. DELMHORST: It's hard to describe, but a lot of these songs, I really just let them fall out. Whatever was the music that really felt like it was gravitating towards, I just really let it be that and I didn't question it much. Because there's so much going on in the lyrics of these songs and I really wanted the music to be fun, you know, and companionable. And so this one, this was the first idea I had for it, was just this sort of semi-crazed little sort of bluegrass, you know, feeling. And it just seemed right. He's so, I mean, I love E. E. Cummings. There's always that level on which his poems are so silly, you know? And then there's lots of other levels where they're really deep. And so it just felt right to have music that was just slightly goofy. And really fun. It's a really fun one to play.
Ms. DELMHORST: (Singing) One day anyone died I guess (and no one stooped to kiss his face) busy folk buried them side by side little by little and was by was all by all and deep by deep and more by more they dream their sleep no one and anyone earth by April with up so many floating bells down...
BLOCK: I don't know that E. E. Cummings would have imagined people two-stepping to one of his poems.
Ms. DELMHORST: I don't either. This is actually the only one that I really, really thought long and hard about because I made some of the lines rhyme that didn't rhyme in the initial poem and I love the way they don't rhyme. I left some of them, but some of them just felt really awkward and so I made them rhyme. And I'm not sure that E. E. actually would approve of that.
BLOCK: The Cummings people are going to be coming after you.
Ms. DELMHORST: Yeah, they might.
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BLOCK: Do you find yourself, if you're reading poems now, are you sort of automatically thinking about melody and instrumentation and turning them into songs?
Ms. DELMHORST: Well, not really. You know, it's funny. I think poems that I already have a relationship with I don't really have the desire to mess with them at all. I mean, they sort of exist fully already. They kind of take up their own space in my mind. And so, I don't know. A few things, I mean, I've come across a few things and thought oh, that would have been really fun to do so who knows? Maybe I'll do a Volume two someday.
BLOCK: Kris Delmhorst, thanks so much for coming in.
Ms. DELMHORST: Thanks so much, Melissa.
Ms. DELMHORST: (Singing) My brave soul. (unintelligible)
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BLOCK: This is Kris Delmhorst's version of Walt Whitman's poem, Passage to India. You can hear her talk about the challenge of adapting that poem and hear more songs from the CD Strange Conversation at our web site, NPR.org.
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BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News.