Happy New Year, dear werds! I hope you have had the best of times since I last wrote (without the accompanying worst of times).
I’m kicking off another year of blogging with a long overdue post. Et voila…
Here’s the thing. I’m not a huge fan of Yeats (with the exception of “When You Are Old” and “Adam’s Curse“). A long time chorister, I have also sung a number of poems and verse set to music (notably Frost and Shakespeare), and I must say that I very rarely enjoy musical settings of poems, either. However, I do like free swag, and so when Zach Hudson, author of the lovely blog New Poetry Review, contacted me with an offer of a free CD of Yeat’s poems set to music, I may have squealed a little with glee. Free swag because of my silly little blog? Yes, please!
For some reason, I had the idea that the CD would entail a man with a deep voice reading the poetry over a score of melodramatic string music. To my delight, I discovered that the CD instead consists of songwriter Kyle Alden singing in his slightly rough baritone, accompanied by his guitar, with Athena Tergis on fiddle and vocals and Mike Marshall on mandolin, in a mixture of folk, traditional Irish, and bluegrass sounds. The instrumentation is clear, resonant, and lovely. As he says in his introduction to the CD, Alden became inspired to set Yeats’s poems to music after visiting Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee while touring western Ireland with the traditional Irish band “The Gas Men.” So he knows a bit about Ireland and its music.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LYRICS AND MUSIC
For the most part, Alden picked some of Yeats’s shorter, more accessible, and “lighter” poems–poems that lend themselves well to musical arrangement, such as ”Colonel Martin” which already reads like a folk ballad, due to its chorus at the end of every stanza (“The Colonel went out sailing”) and its meter.
Alden alters Yeats’s words in a few songs by repeating lines as a chorus, and adds a stanza to “The Cloak, The Boat, and The Shoes” to better round out the song. In some songs, the phrasing is a bit awkward, as I find is often the case with poetry used as lyrics when it was not originally intended for such use. He struggles with the last few lines of both stanzas of “The Well and the Tree,” for example.
My least favorite song on the CD is “The Valley of the Black Pig.” The poem itself is contemplative and prayerful. The music Alden sings to accompany it is upbeat, with a rocking rhythm. He uses the title of the poem as a chorus, repeating it over and over in order to lengthen the two-stanza, eight-line poem. I found a note Yeats wrote about the poem on the Norton Anthology of English Poetry online, which says, “All over Ireland there are prophecies of the coming rout of the enemies of Ireland, in a certain Valley of the Black Pig, and these prophecies are, no doubt…a political force.” Later in the note, he says:
If one reads Rhys’ Celtic Heathendom by the light of Frazer’s Golden Bough, and puts together what one finds there about the boar that killed Diarmuid, and other old Celtic boars and sows, one sees that the battle is mythological, and that the Pig it is named from must be a type of cold and winter doing battle with the summer, or of death battling with life.
So the poem itself, coming from Yeats’s obsession with mythology, is about a rather weighty subject and deserves more subtle treatment.
My favorite song is the first of the album: “Brown Penny.” It has one of Alden’s best tunes, with some lovely harmonies. The lyrics lend themselves well to song, as the third and fourth lines of the second stanza repeat in the fourth stanza and also contain repetition. Alden then repeats the last words of the fourth line to resolve it: “Ah penny, brown penny, brown penny/ I am looped in the loops of her hair/ [The loops of her hair].” Athena Tergis’s fiddle is a lovely vehicle for such a wistful poem.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
If you like bluegrass, Irish music, and/or Yeats, I recommend this album. Thank you to Zach Hudson and Kyle Alden for giving me the opportunity to review it!
You can buy the album here.
More about Yeats here.