Where Are The Muses, Where Are The Voices
I was talking to a friend this week (yes,I have friends. Well, at least one. I’m pretty sure.) Our coffee conversations—usually an hour and a half or so—often cover a variety of topics including coastal stuff, travel, music, environment, movies, weather, politics and more. Back at home a little while later it got me thinking about writing.
I’ve been working to complete my second book, a book I started in 2003, put aside while I finished another book and then left it in a safe place (a digital file and a well-worn hard copy on my desk) to mature like a fine wine. Spoiler alert. It turns out that hard copies and digital files left on or in the desk don’t improve over time.
I’m not certain if I expected one of the muses to stop by and complete my second book for me, magically of course with a wave of those muse-powers, or if she would drop herself into my old brain and voila, “I’d complete” the book. While not everyone assumes all muses are female (or even real) I know they are. Both. Real and female. Historians tend to agree that “the earliest known records of the Nine Muses tells us they are from the homeland of Hesiod”. The nine muses (in English alphabetical order, not Greek) are Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, Urania. Here are their claims to fame.
• Calliope (“The One with a Beautiful Voice”) is the Muse of Epic Poetry.
• Clio (“The Proclaimer”) is the Muse of History.
• Erato (“The Lovely One”) is the Muse of Lyric Poetry.
• Euterpe (“She Who Pleases”), is the Muse of Flute-playing.
• Melpomene (“She Who Sings”) is the Muse of Tragedy.
• Polyhymnia (“She of the Many Hymns”) is the Muse of Hymns and sacred poetry.
• Terpsichore (“The One Delighting in the Dance”), is the Muse of Choral Lyric and Dancing.
• Thalia (“The Cheerful One”) is the Muse of Comedy.
• Urania (“The Heavenly One”) is the Muse of Astronomy.
As if I had a choice I wondered which muse would pick up my unfinished book and help me complete it. Could I count on Calliope? Nah. I’m not a poet. Even starting with classics like “Roses are red, Violets are blue”, I got nothing. How about Clio? Maybe she’s for me, since she’s into history. Erato favored playing the lyre and lyric poetry. I’ve played guitar since I was 12. My telecaster is not a lyre so I’ll just say no. Euterpe is all about flute playing. Well, I did borrow my sister’s flute—she was 13, I was 11 and when I put my lower lip to the lip-plate and blew, the sound that came out of the instrument was akin to stepping on the tail of a large angry feral Siamese cat with asthma. Melpomene is the muse of tragedy. Let me ask, who would want to be the muse of tragedy? And who would want assistance in being a tragic figure? Although in these trying times, perhaps she’s working in politics. Polyhymnia favors hymns and mime. I admit I sang a lot of hymns growing up in Milwaukee but mime? It ain’t me. Terpsichore favors choral dancing and song. I can sing but if you’ve seen me dance, well, let’s just say it has all the charm of watching Elaine Benes dancing on Seinfeld. I’ve always been credited with having a good sense of humor, so perhaps Thalia, the muse of comedy and light verse could help me out. Urania, is predictably, about astronomy. It’s clear. No help from her. I’ll keep an eye out for Clio.
This week I received an email from an online group that I’m a part of—along with one or two million others—who follow the music of Lana Del Rey. Lana—I call her Lana, because, well, that’s her name. Actually her name is Elizabeth but she gave herself a stage name and Elizabeth Grant became Lana Del Rey.
I’ve written about Lana before (back in February 2016.) She was compelling then and continues to successfully expand her repertoire and audience. Her vocal style has been described as Dugazon—Mezzo-soprano without the puffery—and her recordings are high production value, big atmospherics. Think orchestral arrangements of ballads for a pop singer with a punk attitude. Never mind. The point is they are big, rich, emotionally-charged recordings.
My go-to track to get people to try a dose of Lana is “Born To Die” which is easily found on YouTube. I suggest listening to it BEFORE you watch the official video. That way you won’t miss the music and the lyrics while you’re staring at Lana in her drop-dead gorgeous white dress, seated on a (small) throne in the Gallery of Diana at the 17th century Palace of Fontainebleau near Paris, with all of the opulence, flanked by two live Bengal tigers. Nevermind, too late.
Let’s get to the new music. I received the aforementioned email to announce that Ms. Del Rey just released a new track titled “Looking for America”.
Took a trip to San Francisco
All our friends said we would jive
Didn't work, so I left for Fresno
It was quite a scenic drive
Pulled over to watch the children in the park
We used to only worry for them after dark
I'm still looking for my own version of America
One without the gun, where the flag can freely fly
No bombs in the sky, only fireworks when you and I collide
It’s a different sort of song for Del Rey. It’s a protest song, about guns, violence, lost innocence in an increasingly violent America. You may have to listen closely to appreciate the protest. Clearly it was a whole lot easier to recognize a protest song when Barry McGuire sang “Eve of Destruction”, or Bob Dylan sang “Masters of War” or Creedence Clearwater’s John Fogerty sang “Fortunate Son”.
Del Rey’s lyrics are, indeed, reflective of current events. Even Jon Caramanica wrote about “Looking for America” in the August 9 New York Times. Points of reference: El Paso, Texas, Saturday, August 3, and Dayton, Ohio, Sunday, August 4. “[The song was] Written on Monday, teased with a snippet on Instagram that same day, and then released in full on Friday, Lana Del Rey’s 'Looking for America' is a rapid-response protest song—following a slew of mass shootings—from an artist whose tortured relationship to an idealized America has always been central to her persona.”
All of this got me wondering just what is the current state of protest songs in America? Certainly there’s plenty of material out there to inspire (incense) writers. The message of “Looking for America” is clearly not ‘in your face’ but then again Lana's millions of fans are reminded that the times are, in fact, still a-changing. And we still need our writers, musicians and muses to give us a push in the right direction. It’s not all about the atmospherics. It’s about the times. Where is our musical outrage?
Note: L-R: Bob Dylan, John Fogerty, Lana Del Rey.