Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

What instrument is more American and more expressive of our fraught history than the five-string banjo? I don’t play, but I love the music. These poems are my homage.

This entry is part 1 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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A semi-narrative videopoem using footage and music from the documentary And So They Live (1940) by John Ferno and Julian Roffman and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. I first tried to make a banjo videopoem with footage from this documentary three years ago, but chose the wrong poem (“Banjo Proverbs”) — it didn’t work. Even for this one, I felt compelled to minimize the amount of screen time devoted to the banjo player, Richard Berry, in part because the banjo he’s playing is not the kind of homemade catskin banjo described in the text. But I wanted to use the film somehow for at least one of the Breakdown videos. Its subjects deserve better than the treatment they got with the original narration, which stresses their supposedly extreme ignorance, poverty, malnutrition and disease. One suspects the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, named after the founder of General Motors, of ulterior motives in seeking to cast subsistence economies not dependent upon the automobile as the essence of deprivation. It does, however, show that the use of the banjo as a marker for hillbilly backwardness long predates the 1972 movie Deliverance.

I am indebted to the graphic artist and collector of American roots music R. Crumb for identifying the banjoist in the film. Also, it’s worth noting that my friend Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, independently discovered And So They Live in the Prelinger Archives, and has used snippets of it in two of his videopoems: Odds and Ends, featuring a text by Joseph Harker, and The Pioneer Wife Speaks in Tongues, featuring a text by the wonderful Donna Vorreyer. As Marc put it, the documentary contains “some great looking shots but a typical and very patronizing narration.”

This entry is part 2 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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The second poem from my collection Breakdown: Banjo Poems is the 11th to get the videopoetry treatment — not because I don’t care for the text, but because it was damn hard to figure out how to do it. I hope I got it right. (The title in the collection is actually “Medicine Show (1).”)

Video footage is courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. I still think the International Space Station is a colossal waste of money, hardly justified by the few science experiments they conduct. But it sure is a great source of imagery of the earth, and all in the public domain! I downloaded many more videos than I needed, then looked for those that were shot in the same or similar ways. Since the space station orbits in the opposite direction from the rotation of the earth, the direction of travel in those that cross the Americas or the Atlantic is back toward Africa, though I don’t expect that point to be immediately obvious to viewers. Mostly, I was looking for images of calabash- or banjo-type things, epic voyages, the suggestion of sails or oars, the suggestion of dancing, a certain whiff of the hereafter…

“Down to the Valley to Pray” is played clawhammer-style by Tim Hosgood on SoundCloud, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. He’s kind of self-deprecating about his playing, but the track was just what this needed, I thought. The heartbeat recording is from freesound.org user GrimmjowJ, who released it into the public domain. My first draft of the video used a recording of my own heartbeat that I’d made on a sudden whim just before recording my first take of the reading, but the H2 digital recorder was not the best instrument for that, and I realized I had to find something more recognizable. I did numerous takes of the voice recording, trying to keep from sounding too melodramatic and to speak from the diaphragm. I also experimented with increasing the volume of my intakes of breath during the reading, but ultimately felt that was a bit too much. I wanted to make the soundtrack feel as embodied as possible so as not to reinforce the footage’s ethereal spaciness.

As an American writer, I feel that the Middle Passage is a part of our history we absolutely must grapple with — especially if we’re white (and in my case, the descendent of slaveholders). I’m not entirely satisfied with the way Breakdown: Banjo Poems deals with slavery and racism, but all the more reason to keep working on it with some of these videos. I hope also to make a video for the poem “Dueling Banjo,” which quotes a former slave’s recollection of how banjos were used to take revenge on especially cruel masters.

This entry is part 3 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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My tenth banjo videopoem is for one of my favorite texts from the collection. It was prompted by a story on the BBC (which also, incidentally, spawned an effort to manufacture replicas of Shackleton’s banjo for sale in the UK).

The footage is from a silent, color documentary of Admiral Byrd’s 1939-1941 expedition to Antarctica, filmed by unspecified cameramen for the National Archives and Records Administration. There was a great deal of footage that could’ve worked with this poem: seal hunts on the ice, lots of shots of icebergs and other maritime and Antarctic scenery, even scruffy guys clowning around in close quarters. But after much agonizing I decided to stick with penguins, because penguins and banjos just seem like complementary concepts.

For the soundtrack, I blended an atmospheric, experimental piece called “Arctic core samples” by someone who goes by the name of admiral bellybutton on SoundCloud with a digitally altered version of my brother Steve playing “Shady Grove” on clawhammer banjo. Usually finding the right music is the most time-consuming part of making a videopoem, but this time I found it immediately with “arctic” as my only search term on SoundCloud. “Arctic core samples” was made in response to a weekly prompt for the experimental music group Disquiet Junto. The instructions were simple: “Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.” Admiral bellybutton says:

For some unknown reason, my brain thought of scientists taking core samples from glaciers and ice shelves. So, I sampled ice in four different glasses to create the bed. Then I took discrete samples from ice in a wine glass as it melted (a longitudinal study?).

The samples for the bed were processed through paul stretch. The longitudinal samples were put in chronological order (meltiest to most frozen) and then routed through Guitar Rig’s Ice reverb. All mixed in Reaper.

I then thought of making a time-lapse video of icicles melting on my roof. vimeo.com/admiralbellybutton/icelapse

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In a comment on my last videopoem, British poet Dick Jones writes, “I have yet to venture into video poetry. Could you point me in the right direction?” My response: I guess my list of free online resources would be the best place to start. I’ve been doing these banjo videopoems exclusively with found footage, and also using the quite primitive video editing software on my machine, Windows Movie Maker, which I believe is slightly less advanced than iMovie if you have a Mac, or Quicktime. I use Audacity, which is free to download, for audio mixing. I have a somewhat pricey microphone, a Zoom H2, for recording my readings, though the first three were done just with the microphone on a Logitech webcam, and I thought they were adequate, if not terrific. (I’ll re-record them eventually.)

I don’t think these videos actually sell many books; that’s not the point, for me. The point is they represent a new form of creative endeavor involving poetry, and they’re a blast to make!

This entry is part 4 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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The opening poem in Breakdown: Banjo Poems gets a video at last! And for once, there’s no banjo (or banjo-like instrument) in the soundtrack at all, for obvious reasons. I played around with industrial noises for a while, but ultimately settled on something much more angelic, courtesy of a young Irish composer of film and video scores named Steven O’Brien who gives his work away on SoundCloud under an attribution-only Creative Commons license. This particular track, interestingly enough, was used in a humor video that went viral, True Facts about Morgan Freeman. Given the god-like powers attributed to Mr. Freedman in that video, if any viewers of this videopoem are reminded of that, so much the better.

The imagery comes from a World War II propaganda film made by Warner Bros. for the U.S. Maritime Commission (and therefore in the public domain): A Ship is Born, directed by Jean Negulesco. I am indebted to Rachel for the suggestion to try using shipbuilding imagery for this poem.

This entry is part 5 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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My eighth video using a text from Breakdown: Banjo Poems. (If you missed some of the others, they’re all collected on my author website in the order in which they appear in the book.) The images come from a 1956 documentary about St. Louis, The Big City, directed by Charles Guggenheim and now in the public domain. The soundtrack uses two-thirds of a track from SoundCloud, “Uchina noir: The Cocktail Party” by Yoshimasu Kamiya, licenced Attribution-ShareAlike under the Creative Commons. The banjo-like instrument is actually not a banjo but a sanshin, a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa.

This entry is part 6 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

“The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” Thomas Jefferson, 1781. It would’ve been hard not to write a poem responding to that quote. It’s one of my personal favorites from the collection.

The clawhammer banjo here is played by my brother Steve, an old modal tune whose name neither of us can remember. I don’t strive for authenticity in these videos, but Jefferson’s “banjar” might’ve been played in a not dissimilar style, though it would’ve been made from a gourd and thus would’ve had a somewhat softer sound. It’s worth remembering that a little later, escaped slaves were told to “follow the drinking gourd” (the big dipper) to find their way north to Canada. A nightjar, of course, is any bird in the goatsucker family, including the whip-poor-Will (which has the delightful Latin name Caprimulgus vociferus).

Additional sounds are from freesound.org user Meffy Ellis, a recording of a swamp in Virginia. The images come from an old, hagiographic educational film in the Prelinger Archives, Jefferson and Monroe, directed by Stan Barnett. I don’t know if non-Americans will immediately recognize Monticello, the plantation house that Thomas Jefferson designed himself, but it’s a fairly iconic building, and shares the white domed roof with Jefferson’s other famous building, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.

I recorded Steve playing a half-dozen banjo tunes in my living room on Friday evening. My voice-over is stitched together from several different readings. Sometimes I mess up one stanza and sometimes another, but I find if I read a poem four or five times in succession, I can pick and choose the best parts from each.

Update: I made an alternate version of the audio track including the quote from Jefferson (which appears on-screen in the video). It’s on SoundCloud.

This entry is part 7 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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Two more videopoems in support of the new collection. I’ve included YouTube links because for me, at least, the versions on Vimeo are not entirely satisfactory. They sort of hesitate and pop at a few places. (Is anyone else getting this?)

“Banjo vs. Guitar” is the first in this series to use public-domain images from somewhere other than archive.org. I had the idea of using solar eclipse imagery, so went straight to NASA’s YouTube channel. There were some pleasant surprises in the editing process, for example the way the sun’s corona evokes a stringed instrument, and I liked the way it added a cosmic dimension not present in the original text. But as is almost always the case with me, I started with the soundtrack: a version of the famous Mexican folk song “Cielito Lindo” for clawhammer banjo and classical guitar from a guy on SoundCloud named Juan Cordero, who turned out to be very friendly and open to my using the piece. Here’s his original version.

The second videopoem, “Out of Tune,” presented an obvious challenge for the soundtrack, and I experimented with samples of bluegrass bands tuning up, but it just seemed too literal, and I decided I would have better luck with a very basic piece of music played very slowly. Again, SoundCloud delivered: “Slow Met De Banjo” by SoundCloud user David12801280, licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence. The images are from an old home movie of a road trip across the U.S., much of it on the storied Route 66. Whoever shot it seems to have had ADHD, but there were plenty of interesting shots nonetheless. I’m worried that the truck-in-a-ditch part is too obvious and the rest of it not obvious enough, though the visual analogy of meteor crater to ear pleases me, and I like the ramshackle, wind-whipped roadside stands as symbols of breakdown.

This entry is part 8 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

I broke the mold a bit with this one — the first videopoem I’ve made in the slideshow or kinestasis style, which I’ve generally avoided in part because I don’t have the software tools to make it look like anything more than the low-rent copy and paste job that it is. But I’m excited about it anyway, because the text gave me an excuse to explore the rich visual legacy of a chapter in American women’s history I’ve just been learning about: the elevation of banjos into a symbol of (white) women’s social, political and sexual liberation beginning in the late 19th century. I’m indebted to the Penn State Press exhibition catalogue Picturing the Banjo, edited by Leo G. Matzow — especially the essay by Sarah Burns, “Whiteface: Art, Women, and the Banjo in Late-Nineteenth Century America” — for cluing me in about this. Some of the images that were most instrumental in creating this new market for banjos are in the video, including Mary Cassatt’s painting The Banjo Lesson and Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photograph of the Washington DC socialite Miss Apperson playing banjo beside a statue of Flora (a more traditionally Victorian representation of femininity). I had nary an inkling of all this when I wrote the poem back in 2010, so I’m pleased that it managed to evoke an interesting old meme despite the author’s appalling ignorance of it at the time of composition: “luck” indeed! Thanks to Steve Sherrill for loaning me the book.

This is the first I’ve actually used images of banjos or banjoists in this videopoetry series. I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I’ve been avoiding it just because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. (Not that including banjo music in the soundtrack is any less obvious.) In this case, it seemed worthwhile to use such images to suggest a historical dimension that otherwise didn’t make it into the poem, except possibly for the line about looking in the rear-view mirror. At some point, in other videos, I imagine I’ll have to deal with the more stereotypical, racist and classist images of banjo players as well. There’s really no avoiding them; they’re part of our cultural legacy whether we like it or not.

The soundtrack this time comes from my cousin Tony Bonta and his Towson, Maryland-based Bald Mountain Band. He extracted the vocal track from a short number they do called “Jenny Got Naked at a Party in 1989” and gave me carte blanche to use the instrumental version however I wanted. You can listen to the original version, which also happens to be spoken-word, on the band’s page at Reverbnation. Also, audiophile listeners may notice a dramatic improvement over the three previous videos in the quality of my reading here. That’s due to the fact that I got my old Zoom H2 microphone working again, thanks to persistent encouragement from Rachel, who used to work in radio and is sensitive to such differences. Eventually I suppose I’ll redo the other three videos with new voice recordings, but for now it’s more fun to work on new videopoems, which I guess I’ll keep doing until I run out of steam or out of banjo poems, whichever comes first.

You can watch all the banjo poetry videos I’ve made so far at their dedicated page on Vimeo. And of course if you haven’t ordered a copy of the print collection yet, visit the publisher’s website.

This entry is part 9 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

I made another short video from a poem in my new collection, Breakdown: Banjo Poems. If you missed the other two, I created a new album on Vimeo for Breakdown videos. Or simply scroll down through the latest posts in the Videopoetry category here.

The music for this one, found once again on SoundCloud, is by Tem Noon (tabla) and Christen Napier (banjo), one of seven improvisations they recorded, all licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence.

Thanks to the Prelinger Archives once again for the public-domain footage: a 1928 short documentary called Queerosities: A Negro Baptism (yes, the framing was ever so slightly racist) and two untitled home movies of church camps, one also from 1928 and one from 1970. I wanted to include both Southern whites and African Americans in the scenes of religious enthusiasm, since the banjo, like Pentecostalism, has such a potent history with both groups. I don’t know if it matters that the different source materials in the video are so easily distinguishable in quality. My hope is that that just lends it more of a documentary feel.

Thanks also to Rachel for critiquing an earlier version of this video. (If you’re one of the three other people who watched it before 10:00 PM East Coast time tonight, please watch again.) I think it tells a more coherent story now. I also turned down the volume of the music just a bit.

This entry is part 10 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

Another videopoem in support of my poetry chapbook, Breakdown: Banjo Poems. For this one, Steven Sherrill — the same Renaissance man responsible for the cover painting — supplied the banjo playing on the soundtrack. He uploaded it to SoundCloud, where I messed with it just a little and layered in my reading of “The Fifth String.” (I don’t have a very good microphone these days so the recording quality is a little primitive, but primitive seems all right here, at least for this track.) The footage comes once again from the Prelinger archive of ephemeral films, in this case two television commercials from the 1960s or late 50s, now in the public domain. I was a little worried that the result might be too weird, but Steve tells me he loves it: “The tone/look of the video is akin to what I paint.”

I might mention that, in addition to a sub-par microphone, I have been using very basic video editing software as well: Live Movie Maker for Windows 7! The version of Adobe Premiere Elements I’d been using before does not work very well in my new environment, and frankly, for this simple kind of remix, Movie Maker is almost good enough. It’s certainly a lot more versatile than the older version I had on my desktop. For audio editing, I use Audacity, which is free and open source — and so good nowadays I find I don’t miss Adobe Audition at all.

My thinking about these audiopoems and videopoems, by the way, is that they don’t necessarily drive more sales of the chapbook; if that were my primary reason for making them, I suspect I’d be disappointed. They’re just fun to make, and the publication of the book provides a handy pretext for spending many enjoyable hours exploring SoundCloud and archive.org. Plus, they will give me something else to do during a live reading besides just read from a podium. I do have this notion that audiences at poetry readings deserve first and foremost to be entertained.