BEST SHORT POP RECORDINGS OF ALL TIME (2:30 OR LESS)

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Compiling this list, as we looked over decades of music, we found ourselves asking, “What happened to the two minute pop song?”

In 2015, streaming became the best source of revenue in the music business.  In streaming, the shorter the song, the more it can be heard, and this equals more money.

So guess what’s happening?

Songs are getting shorter.

In 2000, the average song on the charts was over 4 minutes.

Now we’re down to about three and a half minutes, and two minute songs (and shorter) are beginning to pop up, again.

For almost 50 years, the two minute hit song has been dead.

Now it’s coming back.

Most of the songs on this list are from the 50s and 60s.

If you don’t see your favorite artist, it could be because they never made a mark under two and a half minutes.

We were very strict with this list.  The most glorious songs running to 2:31 were rejected.

At first, we set the standard at 2:06, the length of “Yesterday,” the pace setter, but too many short songs recorded by masters of brief hits would have been left out, so we settled on two and a half minutes—interminable, if one doesn’t happen to like the song, but still brief enough to meet the standard.

Elvis and the Beatles had hits under two minutes; these two famous acts produced many great songs in the ‘two minutes’ territory. (To keep the list from being dominated by the Beatles, we had to leave off All My Loving, She Loves You, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, Martha My Dear, and many other favorites.) Producing a short recording isn’t easy for songwriters and bands to do. A 12 bar blues song tends to be at least three minutes. Most popular songs before and after (and during) the Elvis/early Beatles era were three or four minutes long. Groups like Devo, the Sex Pistols, the B-52s, and even the Ramones, usually took at least 3 minutes to say what they needed to say. Commercial reasons aside, one wonders: did the relatively short length of their songs (done consciously?) give Elvis and the Beatles a feverish, energetic boost as artists?

Whole decades are dominated by songs averaging four minutes in length—the whole philosophical, or just stylistic question, of the duration of a song, is a fascinating one. What if Mozart and Beethoven symphonies were all four minutes long—would these masters be considered “easy listening?”  How long do we want a song to be?  What imposes length? We think immediately of commercial air time, or now, commercial streaming time. But certainly aesthetics plays a part.

Two minutes is plenty of time to both tell a story and to feature intro, verse, chorus, bridge, and a short solo.  What else do we need?

Time is precious.  We are busy people.

So let’s get right to the list, in no particular order:

1. Yesterday -The Beatles  ~Paul McCartney, perhaps the happiest person on the planet, dreamed this brief gem of a broken-hearted song in the middle of Beatlemania.

2. Between The Bars -Elliott Smith ~This guy had a direct, poignant sound like no other.

3. You Don’t Own Me -Lesley Gore ~An early, operatic, feminist, masterpiece from the golden age of the short pop form.

4. Gin House Blues -Nina Simone  ~You probably don’t know this one. Off her early, great album “Forbidden Fruit.” It’s about gin. But does that matter?

5. All Shook Up -Elvis ~He ruled the short genre.

6. Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want -The Smiths ~When you hear a song like this, you think, ‘Why does a song ever have to be long?”

7. White Rabbit -Jefferson Airplane  ~Is this song missing a chorus? Does it have a completely different structure, or does it just feel that way?

8. Universal Soldier -Buffy St. Marie ~This is more than a 60s anti-war song; it’s a whole soul cry.

9. The Good Life -Tony Bennett ~Even when pop songs were elegant, they featured lyrics which were partially a mystery. Please tell me what this song means!

10. Subterranean Homesick Blues -Bob Dylan This is one of his shortest. His pop genius tended to express itself in three to six minutes.

11. Ferry Cross the Mersey -Gerry and the Pacemakers ~The lilting, lazy (but brief) way to pop immortality.

12. A Day In The Life Of A Fool -Harry Belafonte ~Not his signature song, but a great version of a classic, the one version we found which clocks in under 2:30.

13. Georgy Girl -The Seekers ~Do they write swift, catchy, urbane, hopeful songs like this anymore?

14. Fly Me To The Moon -Frank Sinatra ~”Grown-up” music like Frank’s tended to run three and a half minutes long, not two. This one’s a little over two. Obviously there’s no hurrying Frank.

15. 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) -Simon & Garfunkel ~A breezy, under-two-minutes, swirl of swooning, 60s harmonizing.

16. Summertime Blues -Eddie Cochran ~A teenage, working class, lament—from 1958, covered in a live recording by The Who, in 1967.

17. Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat -Guys and Dolls ~A full but fast Broadway musical number of arch religious urgency.

18. Bad Moon Rising -Creedance Clearwater Revival ~Pure, neat, and rocking.

19. Immigrant Song -Led Zeppelin ~They led the FM radio, longer song, wave of earnest rock; this minor hit from their third album is uncharacteristically quick.

20. Fun Fun Fun -The Beach Boys ~No surprise that they had short songs.

21. People Are Strange -The Doors ~The bad boys of AM radio loved the long song almost more than anyone else. But they had structured pop brevity, too.

22. Elenore -The Turtles ~Joyous romanticism.

23. Sealed With A Kiss -Brian Hyland ~A very pretty song, with the perfect bridge.

24. She’s Not There -The Zombies ~Beatles plus Dylan. Add mood.

25. Everyday -Buddy Holly ~The nerd Elvis. Died at 24.

26. I Fought The Law -Bobby Fuller Four ~Rolling rhythm of iconoclasm.

27. Eleanor Rigby-The Beatles ~Bite-sized classical music

28. Play With Fire -The Rolling Stones ~The Stones tended to stretch out; in this early, brief song, they ply one of their common themes: telling a chick who’s boss.

29. Plays Pretty For Baby -Saosin ~This rocks beautifully for 2 minutes and 2 seconds.

30. I Want To Hold Your Hand -The Beatles ~Their early hits get right to it; no lengthy intros, solos, or fade outs.

31. Teas -Donovan ~The most talented folk rocker of them all? Even this obscure song is great.

32. You Really Got Me -The Kinks ~Ray Davies began writing songs because he didn’t like the songs his talented band was covering. Great songwriting in the 60s was an amateur explosion.

33. The Needle and the Damage Done -Neil Young ~The somberest pleasure.

34. Dance Music -Mountain Goats ~Upbeat, hipster-era song with autobiographical feel.

35. Blister in the Sun -Violent Femmes ~Post-60s mannerism.

37. Blitzkrieg Bop -The Ramones ~When parody is so menacing and serious it’s good.

38. September Song -Nat King Cole ~A wonderful melancholy pop song and a wonderful melancholy  pop singer.

39. Let’s Twist Again -Chubby Checker ~Dance informs song in one way or another.

40. Falling In Love Again -Marlene Dietrich ~She’s had enough of you. But you want her.

41. Roll Over Beethoven -Chuck Berry ~It wasn’t true that Beethoven could be so good and  little pop numbers could also please. But it was true.

42. Blueberry Hill -Fats Domino ~When blues became pop.

43. Tutti Frutti -Little Richard ~A voice that goes through the roof even as electric is taking over the house.

44. La Bamba -Ritchie Valens ~The guitars on this song are fantastic—speaking Spanish or not.

45. Wake Up Little Susie -Everly Brothers ~Everything: Rock, country, folk, great guitar playing, great vocals, story, hooks.

46. Gucci Gang -Lil Pump ~A tiger laughs in this video, a recent hit which shows rap songs getting shorter. The 2 minute hit is returning.

47. Massachusetts -Bee Gees ~Their melody and vocals have great charm.

48. It’s Nothing To Me -Sanford Clark ~A barroom fight story.

49. Fell In Love With A Girl -White Stripes ~Snappy vocals and crunchy rock sound.

50. Communist Daughter -Neutral Milk Hotel ~Crunchy melancholy with a nice trumpet solo.

51. Lump -Presidents of the United States of America ~Hard and catchy.

52. Wrong Way -Sublime ~Tells a miserable story fast, with knock-about energy.

53. Letterbox -They Might Be Giants ~This song (1:26!) has a nice ‘wall of sound’ sound.

54. Game of Pricks -Guided By Voices ~A minute thirty of driving guitars and nice chord changes.

54. Danville Girl -Pete Seeger ~A sweet, melancholy, hobo song. A treasure.

55. Norwegian Wood -The Beatles ~Even as they became more sophisticated, they retained their early-days-knack for ravishing brevity.

56. It’s A Sin To Tell A Lie -The Ink Spots ~Insouciant (and influential) blues/rock & roll—they formed in 1932! One of the best vocal groups of all time.

57. Ain’t No Sunshine -Bill Withers ~1970s Smooth.

58. This Land is Your Land -Woody Guthrie ~Folk music for the U.S.A.

59. Rocky Top -The Osborne Brothers ~Fast and sweet.

60. Doo Wah Diddy Diddy -Manfred Mann ~A great vocal, and a really fun song.

61. Walk Like A Man -The 4 Seasons ~Your great-grandfather’s rock n’ roll.

62. Run Away -Del Shannon ~Melancholy romp.

63. Honky Tonk Blues –Hank Williams ~The Poet of Country Blues

64. He’s A Rebel -The Crystals ~That undying theme: the outsider rebel who woos.

65. Love Potion Number 9 -The Searchers ~A song doesn’t need much time to tell a story.

66. Come See About Me -Supremes ~Motown gals.

67. You Gave Your Love To Me Softly -Weezer ~A big, fuzzy sound over traditional structure.

68. Don’t Be Scared -Daniel Johnston ~Nice song. Sometimes being less scared matters.

69. Nervous Breakdown -Black Flag ~The lyrics, performance, and music sync up well.

70. Black Hole -The Urinals ~When a punk song has a certain softness, it’s always interesting.

71. Loneliness -The Residents ~The apocalypse: in a murky one minute and seven seconds.

72. Come In Stranger -Johnny Cash ~Country guitar over boogie woogie, and that voice!

73. Single Pigeon -Paul McCartney ~After the Beatles. The greatest pop songwriter of them all?

74. Untitled -Bauhaus ~Spooky war sounds and mumbles.

75. Colossal Youth -Young Marble Giants ~Toy instrumentation and girl vocal.

77. Moulin Rouge -Tim Buckley ~A trumpet, a bit of French, a sweet, vampy vocal.

78. Dean’s Dream -The Dead Milkmen ~Some punk is punk—but practiced with art.

79. Outdoor Miner -Wire ~Exquisite pop number which fades out at 1:45 just because it wants to.

80. Orchid -Black Sabbath ~Spanish guitar sound in a ‘less is more lesson’ from Tony Iommi.

81. 30 Century Man -Scott Walker ~”See the dwarfs and see the giants…” 89 seconds of pondering an attitude.

82. She’s A Hunchback -The Dickies ~One minute and twenty seven seconds of melodic, rhyming, punk genius.

83. Remember the Day -Sibylle Baier ~The winsome dream of girl and guitar, languid and sweet. She’s fantastic.

84. Follow God -Kanye West ~Self-assured enough to say big things casually and briefly.

85. It Never Was You -Lotte Lenya ~Married to the songwriter, Weil, who wrote for Brecht.

86. Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas -Judy Garland ~Her voice was too valuable to waste on a two minute song, but we found this Christmas song…

87. Second Hand Rose -Barbra Streisand ~The hit maker; this is from “Funny Girl.”

88. Hit The Road Jack -Ray Charles ~Brightly Percussive, with call-and-response.

89. Yes Indeed -Drake & Lil Baby ~Rap, backgrounded by its music, splits the mind.

90. Lazy Confessions -The Moldy Peaches ~Breathless hipsterism.

91. The Letter -The Box Tops ~A sophisticated, multi-instrument, formula hit in just 2 minutes.

92. Mercedes Benz -Janis Joplin ~G-Eazy’s rap song samples Joplin’s throw-away rather well.

93. Go In -Bigklit ~A recent girl rapper moving into short song territory.

94. Stay -Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs ~The falsetto “won’t you stay?” still excites.

95. Because -Dave Clark Five ~Iconic British invasion band originally formed to fund their soccer team’s travels.

96. I’m Henry VIII I Am -Herman’s Hermits ~Rock and roll can be kids music.

97. Jumpin’ Judy -Erik Darling ~From the folk album “True Religion,” one of the best ever made.

98. Yakety Yak -The Coasters ~A ‘clean your room’ song, fun, socially real, but innocent, and under 2 minutes.

99. Walking My Baby Back Home -Johnnie Ray ~Would have preferred “Cry,” but it was a little too long.

100. The Entertaining of a Shy Girl -Donovan ~If you don’t appreciate the genius of Donovan where have you been?

101. Black-eyed Susie -Ralph Stanley ~A bluegrass tempo can fit everything into two minutes.

102. The Scarecrow -Pink Floyd ~This band will always be Syd.

103. What’s New Pussycat -Tom Jones ~All that excitement in 2:09!

104. It’s Only A Paper Moon -Ella Fitzgerald ~”It’s a Barnum and Bailey world, just as phoney as it can be, but it wouldn’t be make-believe, if you believed in me.” A classic. And we cheated. The final note of this complex arrangement sounds at 2:32. For Ella we’ll do anything.

 

ONE HUNDRED GREATEST FOLK SONGS (PERFORMANCES) OF ALL TIME

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Pete Seeger: Song owes more to him than anyone else.

It is fitting this Scarriet List of Greatest Folk Songs should appear in the wake of Pete Seeger’s passing (January 27, 2014). Folk music (who has done more for it than Pete Seeger?) occupies a stronger place on the other side than any other kind of art: the dead, the ignored, the forsaken, live heroically in the music of people like Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie, and Bob Dylan.

All 100 songs listed here can be heard on the web—this is democratic, and Pete would approve, though he would encourage lovers of music to play, not just listen, and the simple playing: the singing, the strumming of chords on a simple instrument, is what allows anyone to enter simply into this heroic world of folk, and make its music, its words and feelings, its story-telling, morals, myth, poetry, and truth their own.

We should say right from the start that this list is a typical Scarriet project, stamped by our now famous anti-bullshit animus. We delight in smashing common wisdom on our way to the truth: truth naturally begins with opinion, even stupid opinion, as it makes its glorious way forward; minds held by stupid opinion are the greatest obstacle to truth, and moving them is rare, for to move them is usually to offend them, and no one wants to offend— and this is the reason truth hides. Sometimes it is wise for the truth to hide, for offending someone can be unforgivable, and may undo more than it mends. But truth starts with opinion and we start with the opinion of this List.

It is our opinion that good folk music has nothing to do with the trappings commonly associated with folk music: the horribly scratchy fiddle, the whiny hillbilly vocals, and all those “genuine” quirks that get in the way of real expressiveness and smoothness and emotion. We simply do not abide these traditional “folk” qualities, for they are not necessary, and chase modern audiences away from the true glory of the art: poignancy, an underrated sense of humor, melody, elevated dramatic feeling, the nobly human uncannily expressed in an orderly and devotional display of simplicity and sincerity.

Pete Seeger brought two important things to the art: 1. an actor’s sensibility and 2. clarity.

We cannot emphasize the latter virtue enough, for nothing has spoiled folk music—as it is popularly known, than a certain muddy and whiny quality—which Seeger demolished: listen to Pete Seeger’s recordings and hear the beautiful simplicity and clarity of the song’s forward movement, the melodic precision, the lovingly articulated coherence of story-message, the unobtrusive, never fussy, and yet dramatically insistent banjo or guitar, the never over-emoted emotional quality, the balance of all the elements, all the while respecting the intangible roughness and depth of the song itself. A child can appreciate these songs, even before knowing all the adult facts of the lyrics.

Seeger never hung around in a song too long, showing off licks or lyrics or mannerisms, trying the patience of the listener—important in a genre which features ballads of sometimes great length and the almighty guitar.

Seeger always kept two things in the foreground: the listener and the song. This paid enormous dividends; Seeger had a tremendous underground influence on the renaissance of melodic, clear-as-a-bell-chiming, sweetly emotional, 60s popular music.

One might put it crudely and simply this way: Pete played hillbilly music without trying to sound hillbilly. Pete was a self-conscious outsider: he approached Appalachian music, black people’s music, poor people’s music, gospel music, world music, whatever you want to call folk music, from a Collector’s point of view; Pete Seeger came from a wealthy, well-connected, accomplished family, approaching the work of poorer families from an archeological point of view, and his privileged position easily could have damned him had he been less naturally talented and less astute. But he “got it,” and he “owned it” (his song-writing just one of the ways he showed it) and did it with taste, kindness and élan—and the rest is history.

Pete Seeger was not precisely original. But that’s what Folk Music is about.

This is also what Folk Music is about:

Cares about history.

Great songs written by Nobody (anonymous).

Hides inside Rock/pop/ jazz.

Songs that make you hunch forward and listen (not background music).

Many voices/versions/styles of the same song.

Story and feeling over style.

THE LIST

1. Barb’ry Ellen –John Jacob Niles.   The Ballad of Barbara Allen (Anonymous) as lo-fi Wagnerian opera.

2. When I Lay Down To Die –Josh White.  Threatens to turn into a jazz or a blues standard, but plaintively refuses.

3. Danville Girl –Pete Seeger.  This is what Country, Jazz, Rap, Rock, and Classical can’t quite do: poetry nonchalantly humanized.

4. The Whistling Gypsy Rover –Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.  Irish exuberance. Joy with almost nothing.

5. House of the Rising Sun –The Animals. Just so we know: the best of rock music comes from folk music.

6. Goodnight Irene –Leadbelly.  Folk music is the poignant attempt to fix life’s wrongs with a few chords.

7. When First Unto This Country –The New Lost City Ramblers.  The Beatles conquered the world with hooks like this.

8. St. John’s River — Erik Darling. Unspeakably poignant and clear in guitar and voice.

9. The Three Ravens –Alfred Deller. A counter-tenor for the ages, a slain knight, loyal beasts, an immortal tune.

10. Turn, Turn, Turn –Pete Seeger.  Wisdom and song, why not?

11. Deportees –Cisco Houston.  Social commentary never had a smoother voice.

12. Ananias —Buffy St. Marie.  This Native American woman has one passionate and powerful voice.

13. Rags and Old Iron –Nina Simone  An old man selling old scraps and she makes it immortal. How’s that?

14. 500 Miles –Joan Baez.  This whole list could just be her.

15. Pretty Polly –The Byrds.  Doesn’t end well for Polly, presumably because she is pretty and is dating someone named Willy.

16. Down on Penny’s Farm –Bently Boys.  “Hard times in the country, down on Penny’s farm.” Very melodic hard times.

17. Pretty Peggy-O –Bob Dylan.  From 1962, before he was an icon, and he’s really having fun. One of his best recordings.

18.  East Virginia –Pete Seeger.  Compare this version with Buell Kazee’s (a master) and you can hear why Pete Seeger is so good.

19. Come All You Fair And Tender Ladies –Pete Seeger.  Such a beautiful song and sung with a melancholy swiftness.

20. She Moved Through the Fair –Anne Briggs.  A slow folk masterpiece where the voice and the lyrics do it all.

21. King of the Road –Roger Miller.  This might not be real folk music to some, but I think the sheep can stray a little bit.

22. T for Texas. –Jimmie Rodgers.  The ‘Singing Brakeman’ was a TV star.  “I shot ol’ Thelma, just to see her jump and fall.”

23. The Wind And The Rain (from Twelfth Night)  — Alfred Deller.  Lovely, haunting.

24. Old John Hardy –Clarence Ashley.  One of the first “hillbilly” 1920s recording artists. Set the standard for Pete Seeger.

25. All the Pretty Little Horses  –Odetta.  The ultimate lullaby.

26. This Land Is Your Land  –The Weavers.  Woody Guthrie’s national anthem.

27. The Titanic  –Pete Seeger.  The best version of this great song. “It was sad when that great ship went down.”

28. Little Mattie Groves  –John Jacob Niles.  A long ballad sung by the master with the strange voice.

29. Wagoner’s Lad  –Joan Baez.  Mournful and melancholy, just like we like it.

30. How Can I Keep From Singing?  –Pete Seeger.  One of those ‘throw your head back and righteously sing’ songs that Pete does so well.

31. It Ain’t Me Babe  –Bob Dylan.  Dylan was a folk music sponge—as all the best are.

32. John Henry  –Big Bill Broonzy.  And of course Pete Seeger’s version is great, too.

33. Midnight Special  –Creedence Clearwater Revival.  A rock group that rocked folk.

34. Darling Corey  –Pete Seeger.  A perfect rendition of a perfect song.

35. Scarborough Fair  –Simon and Garfunkle.  Folk rock masters sing a folk classic.

36. Handsome Molly  –Mick Jagger.  If your heart is broke, keep movin’!

37. He Got Better Things For You  –Bessie Johnson’s Memphis Sanctified Singers.  A rousing gospel number. Where would folk be without gospel?

38. Bells of Rhymney  –John Denver.  Church bells in Welsh mining towns imitated by a 12 string guitar.  Pete Seeger wrote it.

39. Go Way From My Window –John Jacob Niles.   “You were the one I really did love best.” Bitter-sweet song.

40. Sitting On Top of the World. –Doc Watson.  A wonderful happy-sad song.

41. True Religion  –Erik Darling.  From the album of the same name which is one of the best folk records ever made.

42. Abolitionist Hymn  –Hermes Nye. The greatest Civil War Ballad balladeer.

43. When Johnny Comes Marching Home  –Nana Mouskouri.  A lovely melancholy version.

44. Blow The Man Down –Woody Guthrie.  Not too many good recordings by WG.

45. Santa Anna –Hermes Nye.  A pretty song about the Mexican General.

46. The Cutty Wren –Ian Campbell Group. One of the greatest British ballads.

47. Amazing Grace  –Judy Collins.  Classic song and singer.  Her 1966 “In My Life” album is underrated masterpiece.

48. The Ballad of the Green Berets  –Barry Sadler.  Five weeks at no. 1 in 1966. Tune borrowed from another folk song.

49. Sixteen Tons  –Tennessee Ernie Ford  “And what do you get?”

50. Shenandoah  –Pete Seeger. Just a timelessly great song.

51. Where Have All The Flowers Gone?  –Joan Baez    Pete Seeger based it on a Russian folk song.

52. Green Fields  –The Brothers Four  Languidly beautiful.

53. And I Love Her  –The Beatles  Paul’s glorious contribution to the genre.

54. O Mistress Mine Where Are You Roaming   –James Griffett The great sub-genre of Shakespeare tunes.

55. Eve Of Destruction. –Barry McGuire  Folk music always had something to say.

56. I Started A Joke  –Bee Gees.  They were folk crooners first and foremost.

57. If I Had A Hammer  –Peter Paul and Mary  They covered Seeger and Dylan.

58. Puff the Magic Dragon  –Peter Paul and Mary  Great harmonies and they wrote songs, too.

59. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue  –Bob Dylan  Dylan sings this to Donovan in “Don’t Look Back.”

60. You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away  –The Beatles  John’s glorious contribution to the genre.

61. I’ll Never Find Another You  –The Seekers  Powerful song.

62. Tom Dooley  –Kingston Trio  “Hang your head, Tom Dooley, hang your head and cry. You killed poor Laura Foster, you know you’re bound to die.”  Morality.

63. Man Of  Constant Sorrow  –Bob Dylan. Another early 1962 gem of the folk genre.

64. All My Trials  –Joan Baez  This lullaby originally came from the Bahamas.

65. Rock Island Line  –Leadbelly “Oh the rock island line is the line to ride.”

66. Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream  –Pete Seeger  Composed by Ed McCurdy. Official anthem of the Peace Corps.

67. When The Saints Go Marching In  –The Weavers.  A rousing song by a group that could do rousing.

68. Lady Jane  –Rolling Stones.  A ‘fake’ old folk song?  Perhaps. But a good one.

69. Going To California  –Led Zeppelin  Underneath it all, this was a folk group.

70. Catch The Wind  –Donovan. The English Dylan has made a lot of great music.

71. Ramblin’ Boy  –Tom Paxton  A very sweet song.

72. Little Boxes  –Malvina Reynolds.  “And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.”

73. The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down  –The Band.  Poignant anti-war number.

74. Alice’s Restaurant  –Arlo Guthrie. A long work by Woody’s son.

75. Suzanne  –Leonard Cohen. His singing is not for everyone, but that’s folk music for you. Singing in the shower music.

76. Angeles  –Elliott Smith.  He said he wasn’t a folk singer. He was. His album Either/Or is a must-own.

77. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald  –Gordon Lightfoot. A folk radio hit.

78. If I Were A Carpenter  –Tim Hardin. Drugs. Died at 39 after getting lost in the 70s.

79. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine  –The Weavers.  Jimmie Rodgers version is good, too.

80. Mr. Bojangles  –Jerry Jeff Walker.  Many a folkie wished they had written this.

81. Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright  –Bob Dylan. He could do protest. And love.

82. At Seventeen  –Janis Ian.  The 70s began in folk and ended in disco.

83. Hallelujah  –Leonard Cohen.  He produces iconic songs over decades.

84. Bridge Over Troubled Waters  –Simon and Garfunkle

85. Old Man  –Neil Young  A great folk voice and sensibility.

86. Big Yellow Taxi  –Joni Mitchell.  Her sweet grumble with the world.

87. City of New Orleans  –Willie Nelson.  Great lyrics. True American song.

88. We Shall Overcome  –Pete Seeger. Folk music as moral greatness.

89. Just Like A Woman  –Bob Dylan.  He had a great bedroom style, too.

90. You’re Lost Little Girl  –The Doors. Had a certain William Blake folk sensibility.

91. Crossroads  –Robert Johnson. Blues is folk at the crossroads.

92. To Love Somebody  –The Bee Gees. Written for Otis Redding right before he died.

93. One  –Johnny Cash. The ultimate unplugged voice.

94. Your Cheatin’ Heart –Hank Williams. Folk cheats with country.

95. That’s Alright Mama –Elvis Presley.  He was a folkie at heart, too.

96. Hello In There   –John Prine.  The saddest song ever?

97. And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda  –Eric Bogle.  Cry in your beer, laddie.

98. When This Cruel War Is Over  –Hermes Nye  A gentleman singer with a gift for melody.

99. She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain  –Pete Seeger.  He did a lot of children’s music. Which perhaps says a lot.

100. The Golden Vanity  –Pete Seeger  Great song. Great story.

THE ONE HUNDRED GREATEST ROCK SONGS OF ALL TIME

 

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It is difficult to put rock music in perspective. Sure, smart people have written about rock music, and rock music is very popular, and has been so popular for so many years that old rock songs are still popular.

It could be said, that for the last three generations, rock music has become America’s poetry—shaping the sensibility of millions of young—and even old—people.

Why, then does rock still seem mindless, schlocky, obscene, and low-brow?

Because most of it is.

If literature is a polite form of sex, rock music is an art form which some feel veers too close to sex to be a socially healthy alternative to it.

But with rock’s continued popularity, it is fast becoming our religion, our poetry.  It is now America’s elevator music, shopping-mall music, American Idol music, nostalgic radio and TV music, and has not stopped being our Top 40 music, even as Country and Rap sells millions. All popular American music, even jazz, is just a form of rock music.  A jazz solo sounds like an electric guitar solo; folk, country, jazz, and rap fit under rock’s umbrella—not the other way around.  It is all rock music, really.  Sonically speaking, American art is rock.  Classical music peaked in the 19th century, when America was still a relatively small and backward place; it may not be long before classical music will be a subset of rock music—and such is already the case in many musical listeners’ minds. Rock may not be the best kind of music; but right now it is the biggest sponge.  Rock is currently the place where all roads lead.

The look of rock has certainly been vital to its fame in a modern, media-saturated society.  The personalities, the costumes, the personal stories, the videos, the pyrotechnics, the idols, all that extra-musical material every rock fan is familiar with, is part of rock’s popularity; but rock songs still exist as rock songs: they have their profound impact, in the dark, emitted from a tiny speaker.  It is finally the sound, the song, in its harmonic and emotional aurality that matters.

But why—how—has rock, this silly electrified music, scaled the heights of culture?  Four basic reasons.

The best of it absorbs all other music, from classical, to jazz, to folk.

It has no avant-garde.  It has not yet fallen victim to the zany and the pretentious.

It lives outside the academy.  To see how dead rock music can be, watch American Idol, a display of what happens when rock is systemized, archived, sent to school, judged.

It strikes a perfect balance between writing/creating and playing/performing: both are equally important.

When rock has nothing left to rebel against, when rock has nothing left to absorb, will it finally die? And what will take its place?  Right now, rock music stands alone.

The criteria for The List are as follows:  Interesting All the Way Through. Rock songs thrill immediately; many good ones begin brilliantly but then we lose interest once the beat of the song is established. Great lyrics, Melody, harmony, originality, sound quality, emotional power, are all crucial.

A good List should seem inevitable, yet surprising.

A good List should not be enslaved by stars and big names, but obscurity should be avoided as well.  We are talking about popular music, after all.

If some favorites are not included, one should at least feel that every type has been represented, and often in terms of origins and templates.

 

 THE LIST:

1. WHEN THE MUSIC’S OVER  –THE DOORS— Jim’s screams; a mini-symphony from the Beethoven of Rock bands.

2. BE MY BABY –THE RONETTES— Chorus agrees with singer so sweetly and exuberantly, for two minutes the world and love seem one.

3. GREEN FIELDS –THE BROTHERS FOUR— The ultimate ‘white blues’ song. Has a hushed power. Released in 1960.

4. MRS. ROBINSON– SIMON & GARFUNKLE— The energy, polish, and delicacy of late 60s S & G songs are unmatched.

5. LATHER– JEFFERSON AIRPLANE— Very few songs can truly be called mind-blowing; haunting, artistic, weird.

6. DAY IN THE LIFE– THE BEATLES— The musicians took over the control board: the final effort of an era’s performers turning profoundly and self-consciously inward. More than a song: the world’s greatest entertainers descend into the despondently poetic.

7. SEA OF LOVE –PHIL PHILLIPS— If Bach were alive in the 1950s…if Puccini were a hep cat…a catalogue of art music in two minutes.

8. CRY — JOHNNY RAY— Was he the father of rock n’ roll?  This magnificent recording came out in 1951.

9. I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER –ARETHA FRANKLIN— Urban gospel jazz classical sweetness.

10. HOW SOON IS NOW –THE SMITHS — This song has it all: brain-filling sound, lyric, singer, intangible menace-melting-into-cool.

11. SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT –NIRVANA— A moment when rock looked at itself, said Oh Fuck and squirmed back.

12. LIGHT MY FIRE –THE DOORS— For about 100 days these guys were rock music and no one else was.

13. WILD THING — THE TROGGS— With a recorder solo! In terms of insouciant understatement, most iconic rock performance ever. Hold me tight.

14. WHAT’S GOIN ON? –MARVIN GAYE— Maybe the greatest pop singer ever. A delirious—and serious song.

15. LIKE A ROLLING STONE — BOB DYLAN — He made angry lyrics an art form; looking back, folk to rock was a big challenge.

16. SPACE ODDITY –DAVID BOWIE— A song that does many things; one of the great Wagnerian efforts of mature rock.

17. HOUSE OF THE RISING SUNTHE ANIMALS— On the back of an electric keyboard, a classic folk tune reaches rock immortality.

18. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN –LED ZEPPELIN— No matter what anyone says, this band’s best song. Melody, dynamics, atmosphere.

19. WILD WORLD — CAT STEVENS— The best of the ‘sincere’ singer/songwriter phenomenon from a male perspective.

20. ME AND BOBBY MCGEE –JANIS JOPLIN— She emoted in a way that was almost too good to be true.

21. VIVA LA VIDA –COLD PLAY— They could have had hits in the 60s!

22. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL –THE ROLLING STONES— They actually wrote a lot of pretty pop songs.

23. SHE LOVES YOU –THE BEATLES— It was the simple sophistication of ‘she’ loves you rather than ‘I’ love you. It was joy.

24. KANSAS CITY –LITTLE RICHARD— A British Invasion starter. A 1955 record issued in 1959 in the U.K. where Little Richard was huge, never having set foot there.

25. NOTHING COMPARES 2 U — SINEAD O’CONNOR— Big, slow beautiful ballad that came out of nowhere in the moribund 90s.

26. WHITER SHADE OF PALE — PROCOL HARUM— Help from Bach and Chaucer; a song that keeps on giving.

27. JAILHOUSE ROCK — ELVIS PRESLEY— Performer, not writer; good at choosing songs, but a truly great song never chose him.

28. STANDING IN THE SHADOW OF LOVE — FOUR TOPS— A hit-making machine for Motown, all went to the same high school in Detroit.  There was uplift, but also an exquisite sound of moral desperation in their songs.

29. WALK ON THE WILD SIDE — LOU REED— This was rock becoming self-consciously cool, almost as it always had been.

30. JUST SAY I LOVE HIM — NINA SIMONE— Genre-wise, “Forbidden Fruit” (1961) which contains this tender song, is jazz/blues/folk. The underrated album is a monster.

31. DON’T LET THE SUN CATCH YOU CRYING– GERRY AND THE PACEMAKERS— One of the sweetest recordings of all time.

32. WATERLOO SUNSET — THE KINKS— Ray Davies writes and sings; his brother pushes the song into another zone with his guitar; successful bands usually contain family, love, rivalry.

33. HE’S A REBEL — THE BLOSSOMS—  Loving the rebel.  Credited to the Crystals, a girl-group not available on short notice to record it.

34. SCHOOL’S OUT — ALICE COOPER— What most people think of when they think of rock music.

35. ELENORE –THE TURTLES— Before rock turned dangerous, it grew into what it was simply as an innocent (?) love-drug. “So Happy Together” would work as well.

36. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME — TOMMY EDWARDS— The tune was composed in 1911 by a future Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge, Charles Dawes.

37. BILLY JEAN — MICHAEL JACKSON— A song impeccably produced by Quincy Jones, who worked with Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Sinatra, and Lesley Gore.

38. UNIVERSAL SOLDIER — BUFFY ST. MARIE— This anti-war song, written by the sexy Native American singer, was covered by Donovan.  Her version is much better.

39. CALIFORNIA DREAMING — MAMAS AND PAPAS— Folk rock can be a great way to speak.

40. I WANNA BE SEDATED — THE RAMONES—  Punk has its anthem.

41. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO HURT ME? — CULTURE CLUB— Melancholy cool at its best.

42. WHAT THE WORLD  NEEDS NOW IS LOVE — JACKIE DESHANNON— A perfect example of sophisticated, urban, socially holy, feel-good, sentimentality.

43. BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER — SIMON & GARFUNKLE— There was an inescapable magic about these two.

44. MAGGIE MAE — ROD STEWART— A raggedy rock classic.

45. HURDY GURDY MAN –DONOVAN — The backing band for this great hippie singer’s 1968 hit (and he had many) was the future Led Zeppelin.

46. HEY YA! — OUTKAST—  It was nice to hear this in 2003.   This is how it’s done.

47. I’M A BELIEVER — THE MONKEES—  The emergence of this ‘audition for TV show’ Beatles-clone band inspired the Beatles to go deeper.

48. TO KNOW HIM IS TO LOVE HIM — THE TEDDY BEARS— Freud could say Phil Spector used music to get women to worship the father.

49. PINE TOP’S BOOGIE WOOGIE — PINE TOP SMITH— The template for all forms of popular rock exists in this 1928 recording. “And when I say, get it, I want you to shake that thing.”

50. SPIRIT IN THE SKY — NORMAN GREENBAUM— A one hit wonder which really is a wonder.

51. UNDER THE BOARDWALK — THE DRIFTERS— We don’t have to talk about the heroin overdose death of the lead singer the day before the song was to be recorded. Just a great song.

52. SOMEONE LIKE YOU — ADELLE — A woman holding her heart in her hand. Magnificent.

53. EARTH ANGEL — THE PENGUINS — An art song of sentimental naivety.

54. NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 1941 — THE BEE GEES — Nothing bubblegum about this.

55. WHAT’D I SAY — RAY CHARLES — If this song doesn’t make you want to jump out of your skin, you’re not alive.

56. I PUT A SPELL ON YOU — SCREAMIN JAY HAWKINS — What can one say about this?

57. ICKY THUMP– THE WHITE STRIPES — The art of controlled hysteria with poetry inside.

58. I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU –THE FLAMINGOS — A gorgeous declaration of love, as 1959 covers a 1934 tune.

59. SHE’S NOT THERE — THE ZOMBIES — Moody, soft, melodic, and to the point. Rock that dazzles.

60. WE ARE YOUNG — FUN — The chord progression of the chorus is epic.

61. TIME — PINK FLOYD— A special-effects-saturated, self-examining exercise in English self-pity at the center of the best-selling album of all time.

62. AT THE HOP — DANNY AND THE JUNIORS—  The most efficient twelve-bar blues ever.  1957. When templates were perfected.

63. GOD SAVE THE QUEEN — THE SEX PISTOLS — This was a new kind of music: real limits were being pushed. Rock has many, many houses.

64. THE DAY THE MUSIC DIED –DON MCLEAN — The danger here is sentimentality, but the moral, historical, self-reflexive story telling is important.

65. STAYIN’ ALIVE –THE BEE GEES — No one saw this coming: a band of melody becoming a band of beats.

66. HEY JUDE — THE BEATLES — A hopeful A.M. radio era anthem before all the F.M. splintering began.

67. DANCING QUEEN –ABBA — The well-tempered clavier meets disco.

68. MACK THE KNIFE –BOBBY DARIN —  Kurt Weil had his own invasion.

69. YOUNG FOLKS — PETER BJORN AND JOHN— Some day ‘catchy’ may be the most important term in the world.

70. SLOW RIDE — FOGHAT — A great example of a rocker’s rock song.

71. AQUALUNG –JETHRO TULL — The ‘Sgt. Peppers/Tommy’ era was extraordinary: Globe Theater rock.

72. NIGHTS IN WHITE SATIN — THE MOODY BLUES — One of those haunting ‘classical music’ rock tunes which sound good even when its simple chords are strummed on an acoustic guitar.

73. TEMPTATION EYES — THE GRASS ROOTS — Life is too short to be snobby towards The Grass Roots.

74. ARE YOU EXPERIENCED — JIMI HENDRIX — Hendrix was a fanatic about sound, almost in a John Cage sort of way.

75. FREE BIRD — LYNYRD SKYNYRD — The song became a joke, but only because it was good.

76. BORN TO BE WILD — STEPPENWOLF — All the elements of a great rock song and the first to really sound like a machine, among other things.

77. THE END — THE DOORS — Early rock n’ roll was Greece, the Doors, Rome.  The rest is imitative.

78. LOUIE LOUIE — THE KINGSMEN — One of those mysteriously great hits which seem like many great songs inside of one.

79. MY SHARONA — THE KNACK — Nearly the parody of a great rock song.

80. SMOKE ON THE WATER — DEEP PURPLE — Something important about this song. No, never mind.

81. ROCK LOBSTER — B-52S — The best example, perhaps, of New Wave’s goofiness.

82. BENNY AND THE JETS — ELTON JOHN — John/Taupin was like one of those old music & lyric writing teams.

83. NORWEGIAN WOOD — THE BEATLES — The best world music riff of all time.

84. AS TEARS GO BY — THE ROLLING STONES — If you can please with a slow tune, it proves you’re not just a dance band.

85. LOVE WILL TEAR US APART –JOY DIVISION — Of Ian Curtis his band mates said, “we didn’t realize he meant it.”

86. I CAN SEE FOR MILES — THE WHO — The Who had remarkable parts which came together in a mix good and bad precisely because they tried so hard to be pop and rock.

87. JOY INSIDE MY TEARS —  STEVIE WONDER— A comfort song as only Stevie Wonder can bring, from the pretentiously named 1976 double album, “Songs in the Key of Life.”

88. MAYBELLENE — CHUCK BERRY — Let’s face it: so much of rock music can be annoying.  And also iconic.

89. JUST CAN’T GET ENOUGH — BLACK EYED PEAS — The new hedonism of rock adds competition: my party in my video has more naked, beautiful people than yours.

90. HEY THERE DELILAH — PLAIN WHITE T’S — The best love song of the 21st century so far?

91. STORMY — DENNIS YOST & THE CLASSICS IV— It’s a little hard to find this song, but for simple, unpretentious songwriting it’s as good as it gets. Epitomizes 70s ear candy.

92. LET’S STAY TOGETHER –AL GREEN — Every woman in the world loves this song.

93. VACATION — THE GO-GOS — This genre, which includes Katrina and the Waves, Cindi Lauper, Blondie, the Bangles, the Vapors, Shocking Blue, the Breeders is quite a lot of fun.

94. CHASING CARS — SNOW PATROL — One of the best things rock can do is create tension which makes passionate insouciance memorable.

95. IRREPLACEABLE — BEYONCE — Not a love song.

96. DREAM BROTHER — JEFF BUCKLEY — A meditative urgency which rock can do so well.

97. CALL ME MAYBE — CARLA RAE JEPSEN — Sort of a love song.

98. WHITE RABBIT — JEFFERSON AIRPLANE — The structure of this song is a rabbit hole. A masterpiece.

99. GOOD NIGHT IRENE– THE WEAVERS — This 1950 hit, a white group playing a black man’s (Leadbelly) music, could make a case for the song that began it all.

100. ODE TO JOY, FOURTH MOVEMENT, NINTH SYMPHONY– BEETHOVEN — Here’s a secret: this is when rock music really began.

 

 

 

 

 

IS THERE ANY GOOD HALLOWEEN POETRY?

Since there is no earthly good in frightening someone—except, perhaps, for science, or for a laugh—it is safe to say good literature will never be frightening, for it naturally follows that what we call ‘good’ must have something good about it.

The “fright industry” claims a great swath of schlocky middle-brow art and entertainment, from Boris Karloff to Rob Zombie, from Dracula to Death Metal, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King.  For many, skull-fashion is cool and slasher films are a hoot.

But high-brow art is not necessarily good, and the broad appeal of horror, with its excess and sometimes its accompanying humor, is a fertile field for a certain amount of aesthetic experimentation.  Poe built whole systems around the melancholy and the somber; his ghouls were never ghouls unless they served an aesthetic purpose; as science explored smaller and more defined spaces, Poe did the same in literature.  Always the artist, in his Philosophy of Composition, Poe wrote:

The next point to be considered was the mode of bringing together the lover and the Raven — and the first branch of this consideration was the locale. For this the most natural suggestion might seem to be a forest, or the fields — but it has always appeared to me that a close circumscription of space is absolutely necessary to the effect of insulated incident: — it has the force of a frame to a picture. It has an indisputable moral power in keeping concentrated the attention, and, of course, must not be confounded with mere unity of place.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son and film noir share a shadowy aesthetic.  Shadow belongs to art and science.  Imagination works in the dark, and Faith lives there, as well.  It isn’t only horror that likes the dark.

I can’t imagine John Ashbery or John Bernstein trying to write a scary poem.   Perhaps they are wise not to—the scary is equated with the worst kind of camp, and if a poet has no broad appeal to begin with, it would be suicidal to one’s high-brow reputation to go the low-brow route to gain readers.

Poe knew that horror was best evoked in homely, not poetic terms:

My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events. In their consequences, these events have terrified — have tortured — have destroyed me. Yet I will not attempt to expound them. To me, they have presented little but Horror — to many they will seem less terrible than barroques. Hereafter, perhaps, some intellect may be found which will reduce my phantasm to the common-place — some intellect more calm, more logical, and far less excitable than my own, which will perceive, in the circumstances I detail with awe, nothing more than an ordinary succession of very natural causes and effects.

True, this is the narrator of “The Black Cat” speaking, and not Poe, but Poe understood that horror didn’t sit well with the Muse.  There’s a reason why Thomas Lovell Beddoes and John Clare are minor Romantics.  The poet who scares himself and tries to scare others is never going to be a major poet.  The major poet transforms the terrible into beauty or laughter, and laughter and the beautiful can be terrible, even as it  neutralizes the terror.

Every major writer occasionally wanders into the realm of bad taste.

The minor writers do it more often, and that’s why they are minor.  And nothing screams ‘bad taste’ like only being scary, or disgusting, or offensive.

A ghost story is one thing, but what about a ghost poem?  How easy would it be for a John Ashbery or Charles Bernstein to write a ghost poem?  And what obstacles would stand in their way?

A rather recent Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets series book, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the late John Hollander, with his own translations of Heine, Goethe, Verlaine, and Baudelaire (Hollander left the translations of Classical authors to others) is a dashing little Halloween volume, bound and printed nicely with an orange ribbon bookmark, a steal at $12.50. (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005)

Hollander made selections based on his own high-brow taste,  and his bewitched and haunted poems are also 99% verse.   Apparitions, witches, ghosts, and love’s revenge are the rule, rather than horror or fright for its own sake.  A poem by Swinburne is the most horrific, featuring a woman who feeds her children to her husband and his new bride.  Most of the poems are ‘ghostly’ in a Victorian manner.

Hollander obviously subscribes to the idea that rhymes and verse-chants have a haunted quality in themselves.

Scattered throughout the volume are many exquisite lines.  Not many poems are excellent throughout; one gets the idea the poet often felt a little ashamed of his spooky ballad, and hence failed to put in the necessary work to bring it to completion.  Or, fear made the poet nervous, fear of being blasphemous, and writing it down forever; because, after all, the haunted implies a wrong that we can’t shake off, and maybe the very task itself rattles the poet.

Many were hesitant in the superstitious, ancient days to conjure ghosts; then modern delight in ghosts fled into prose.  The pagan poems are full of ghosts, but that makes translation into English necessary, and English poems that are truly ghostly are few.  We’ve got Macbeth, we’ve got Thomas Lovell Beddoes, the Romantic sublime, which tends to be more pantheistc than ghostly, the Victorians, who often fail because their versifying is unimaginative, and then by the time we reach the Moderns, all that superstitious stuff has been cast out.

There is a story that a poet went to an old master for advice and got only this: “Work on your lighting.”  There is a certain palpable ingredient which no poem requires so much as the ghost poem.

A haunted poem requires cinematic aplomb, a focus of story, a sly impetus of tension which can’t be faked or personalized away.  A ghost poem either works, or it doesn’t; the sublime (on some level) must be reached, and one silly part, or a lack of finish, can spell failure.  If a ghost poem takes itself too seriously, it will fail.  If a ghost poem doesn’t take itself seriously enough, it will fail, too.  The ordinary poem makes its own rules as it goes, forming itself on the force of the modern poet’s personality.  The ghost poem, on the other hand, has a history: Virgil’s “Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife” (in this volume) is one example, and the ghost poem also has expectations: certain rules have to be obeyed, even as new ones need to be made.

What we are saying is that ghost poems are not easy to write.

The best poems in this volume are:

The Haunted Palace –Edgar Poe 
Little Orphant Annie –John Whitcomb Riley
La Belle Dame Sans Merci  –John Keats
The Witch Medea –Ovid, trans. Sandys
The Haunted House  –Thomas Hood
Spectral Lovers  –John Crowe Ransom
The Haunted Chamber –Henry Longfellow
A Lovely Witch’s Cave  –Shelley
Mary’s Ghost: A Pathetic Ballad –Thomas Hood
The Ghosts  –Ella Wheeler Wilcox
Two Ghosts Converse  –Emily Dickinson
A Witch Exposed –Edmund Spenser
Phantom –Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Three Witches (from Macbeth)  –Shakespeare
The Orchard Ghost –Mark Van Doren
No More Ghosts   –Robert Graves
The Old Ghost  –Thomas Lovell Beddoes
The Witch –Adelaide Crapsey
Aeneas Meets His Dead Wife –Virgil trans. Dryden
A Ghost Story –Randall Jarrell
Walpurgis Night from Faust  –Goethe, trans. Shelley
The Amber-Witch  –William Vaughn Moody
The Apparitions  –William Butler Yeats
The Ghosts of Beauty –Alexander Pope

Thomas Hood has two of the best poems in the volume.  A neglected poet who Poe claimed was too fond of puns, Hood shows that he can do the haunted poem in mode serious or funny.

Those who object to John Whitcomb Riley’s poem should read it out-loud to appreciate its excellence.  The Ella Wilcox poem is also an anti-war poem.  Robert Graves has a great idea: no more ghosts.

Witches could be said to represent men’s fear of women, women who “can’t be satisfied,” as Led Zeppelin put it, but Shelley writes of a beautiful and beneficial witch, Shelley too much of a gentleman to demean the feminine.

We’d like to share Coleridge’s simple “Phantom,” which is not often reproduced:

All look and likeness caught from earth,
All accident of kin and birth,
Had pass’d away. There was no trace
Of aught on that illumined face,
Uprais’d beneath the rifted stone
But of one spirit all her own;-
She, she herself, and only she,
Shone through her body visibly.

Homer’s “‘Circe” Heine’s “Lorelei,” and Baudelaire’s “The Incubus” suffer from so-so translations.

Robert Frost’s “Pauper Witch of Grafton” we had no patience for—nor the two Vachel Lindsay selections—that man had no reason to write verse.  Two E.A. Robinson poems likewise were not good enough to be included.  Thomas Hardy (3 poems) also failed to impress.

Tristan Corbiere’s, translated by Hollander, is a fetid little poem.

But some prefer this:

Evil Landscape

Sands of old bones—the rattling wave’s
Dead-march, bursting noise on noise
Pale swamps where the moon consumes
Enormous worms to pass the night.

Stillness of pestilence; simmering
Of fever; the will-o’-the-wisp
Languishes. Fetid herbiage, the hare
A timid sorcerer, fleeing there.

The white Laundress lays outspread
The dirty linens of the dead
In the wolves’ sunlight…sorrowful
Little singers now, the toads,
Poison, with colic of their own,
The mushrooms that they sit upon.

–Corbiere

to this:

In the greenest of our valleys
By good angels tentanted,
Once a fair and stately palace—
Radiant palace—reared its head.
In the monarch Thought’s dominion—
It stood there!
Never seraph spread a pinion
Over fabric half so fair!

And travellers, now, within that valley,
Through the red-litten windows see
Vast forms, that move fantasically
To a discordant melody,
While, like a ghastly rapid river,
Through the pale door
A hideous throng rush out forever
And laugh—but smile no more.

(first stanza and last staza of Poe’s “Haunted Palace”)

Poe’s poem is a masterpiece because of its music, and that music’s fruit is in the unusual shape of its stanza, with lines of varying lengths.

The Modernists rejected verse as monontonous, and they were partly right to do so; but instead of expanding the possibilities of verse, they retreated into prose.  At the crossroads, Poe, in his verse, in his Philosophy of Composition, The Poetic Principle, and The Rationale of Verse, argued that vigilant experimentation could make verse continually interesting.

The enemy of verse is not free verse, nor bad verse, but the equation in people’s minds of bad verse with verse.

“Windy Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson, chosen by Hollander for his book, is an example of bad verse, or doggerel:

Whenever the moon and stars are set,
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
Late in the night when the fires are out,
Why does he gallop and gallop about?

Whenever the trees are crying aloud,
And ships are tossed at sea,
By, on the highway, low and loud,
By at the gallop goes he.
By at the gallop he goes, and then
By he comes back at the gallop again.

Even this has movement and interest, but compared to the Poe, it simply “gallops about.”

John Crowe Ransom (1888-1974), in his poem, “Spectral Lovers,” shows the richness possible for even a modern poet who experiments with stanza:

By night they haunted a thicket of April mist,
As out of the rich ground strangely come to birth,
Else two immaculate angels fallen on earth,
Lovers, they knew they were, but why unclasped, unkissed?
Why should two lovers go frozen asunder in fear?
And yet they were, they were.

Over the shredding of an April blossom
Her thrilling fingers touched him quick with care,
Of many delicate postures she cast a snare;
But for all the red heart beating in the pale bosom,
Her face as of cunningly tinctured ivory
Was hard with an agony.

Stormed by the little batteries of an April night,
Passionate being the essence of the field,
Should the penetrable walls of the crumbling prison yield
And open her treasure to the first clamorous knight?
‘This is the mad moon, and must I surrender all?
If he but ask it, I shall.’

And gesturing largely to the very moon of Easter,
Mincing his steps, and swishing the jubilant grass,
And beheading some field-flowers that had come to pass,
He had reduced his tributaries faster,
Had not considerations pinched to his heart
Unfitly for his art.

‘Am I reeling with the sap of April like a drunkard?
Blessed is he that taketh this richest of cities;
But it is so stainless, the sack were a thousand pities;
This is that marble fortress not to be conquered,
Lest its white peace in the black flame turn to tinder
And an unutterable cinder.’

They passed me once in April, in the mist.
No other season is it, when one walks and discovers
Two clad in the shapes of angels, being spectral lovers,
Trailing a glory of moon-gold and amethyst,
Who touch their quick fingers fluttering like a bird
Whose songs shall never be heard.

We’ll close with Adelaide Crapsey’s “The Witch:”

When I was a girl by Nilus stream
I watched the desert stars arise;
My lover, he who dreamed the Sphinx,
Learned all his dreaming from my eyes.

I bore in Greece a burning name,
And I have been in Italy
Madonna to a painter-lad,
And mistress to a Medici.

And have you heard (and I have heard)
Of puzzled men with decorous mien,
Who judged—The wench knows far too much—
And burnt her on the Salem green?

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