How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Neil Young’s 1996 album Broken Arrow (with his garage band, Crazy Horse) ends with a live cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1959 rock classic, “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Neil and the boys are playing a small club, some secret venue where they can let down their famous hair and rock out in a space where they can feel it.
It’s a brilliant ending to an album that seems scattered at times, but maybe that’s the big idea behind the album. One of the songs is even called that: “Scattered.” Neil sings:
I’m a little bit here a little bit there
a little bit scattered everywhere
I’m a little bit up I’m a little bit down. . . .
Just like Jimmy Reed:
I’m goin’ up I’m goin’ down
I’m goin’ up down down up
Anyway you want to let it roll
Yeah yeah yeah
But the best thing about this live recording isn’t the band. Or it isn’t just the band. The recording itself seems scattered, unfocused, made from a single audience mic that gathers up all the scattered noises of the barroom. You can hear everything: the music, the band, the whistles and applause, the random conversations, laughter, clinking bottles and glasses, chairs and tables. You can even hear the size of the room. Everything.
And then, about four minutes into the song, Neil lays into his 1953 Les Paul—loud, raw, beautiful. The band is really cooking now, and the scattered noises fall into the rhythm, into a natural sympathy with the music. You can hear the audience listening intensely.
As the music starts to happen, the audience starts to happen too. In an epiphany-like moment we hear the audience suddenly become part of the song—not just passive auditors, but a necessary part of the equation, something the music doesn’t happen without.
Baby what you want me to do? The song answers its own question. How could I not be here for you? How could I happen without you?
In the early 20th century, American musicologist Frances Densmore traveled around the nation with one of Thomas Edison’s newfangled wax cylinder recording devices, lugging the bulky equipment with her to record Native American songs in their tribal settings. Densmore’s achievement is formidable all the way around, but she recorded one song that stands out—a sacred song of the Red Lake Ojibwe (aka Chippewa) tribe in Minnesota that Densmore titles “The Noise of the Village.”
The words of this remarkable song are frequently anthologized as a poem in collections of Native American poetry and represented as if the song were a kind of haiku—the short imagistic poem that American poet Ezra Pound popularized in modernist poetics:
Whenever I pause,
of the village
But the song is nothing like haiku, and making it look that way is an unconscionable act of literary colonialism where Anglo-European literary culture (itself appropriating an Asian tradition) imposes itself on Native American song. (Representing the song like this also exposes some dubious parochial assumptions about what’s poetry and what’s not.)
On Densmore’s recording, the words of the song are repeated over and over, interspersed with what jazz singers call “scat singing” and linguists call “non-lexical vocables”—rhythmic nonsense syllables à la hip hop, do-wop, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and even Shakespeare with a hey nonny nonny, and rhythmic expletives à la Jimmy Reed’s “yeah yeah yeah.”
As transcribed in Densmore’s book Chippewa Music (1913), the original Ojibwe words are represented phonetically with the translation glossed for each word separately at the bottom of the page. Here are the Ojibwe words followed by a literal translation (with parentheses around the expletive syllables, which I translate as familiar pop idioms):
a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) (a bu) de bwewe odena a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan
Whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah) whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah)
Whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah) (Oh baby) the noise of the village whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah) whenever I (oh yeah) pause
However the song is presented, the words are stunning. Imagine the songwriter, busy at some task. He pauses to take a break, and as his concentration relaxes, all the sounds of the village around him come rushing back into his consciousness, all the scattered noises of the community that engenders his labor and his songs.
And his identity too. Busy at his task, engrossed in what he’s doing, he’s invisible to himself. But as he relaxes he becomes aware of himself again and in the same moment becomes aware of all the noises of the village around him. He couldn’t miss the connection. How could I happen without you?
The songwriter then takes this epiphany and turns it into a song that, in the singing, becomes another one of the noises it celebrates.
And that’s culture—poetry, rock and roll, writing, all of it: the sound of the village celebrating the sacred, scattered sounds of ourselves happening.
And I think I’m a kind of scattering, too. I know I feel that way sometimes, some days more than others. A little bit here, a little bit there. Michelle will tell you.
And writing this column scatters my scattered self around. Jimseed. Me scattering myself into the world and becoming myself in the scattering. This is me happening.
And isn’t that all of us? We scatter ourselves around, things that happen. We don’t happen for long—“Poor passing facts,” the poet Robert Lowell calls us; “Poor foolish things that live a day,” says Yeats—but we do happen.
In his recent, posthumously published book on Heidegger, the late American philosopher John Haugeland contends that, paradoxically, we only emerge as individuals when we take responsibility for a collective way of being in the world. We happen to each other and for each other. And we don’t happen without each other.
We’re becoming ourselves in scattering ourselves afield, Johnny Appleseeds all.
How could I happen without you?
• Jim Hale can be reached at www.jimhalewriting.com.