Friday, May 16, 2008

Voices Through the Crackle

Once upon a time back in the 1960's a poet-singer from South Dakota named Tom Rapp fronted, what they would call now, a "psychedelic folk" group known as Pearls Before Swine.

During that time, prompted by a song of "Pearls" I liked called "Drop Out!" (a directive for which i needed no prompting, attitude-wise) i picked up a copy of their 2nd lp Balaklava. Balaklava didn't have "Drop Out!" but i loved it anyway. This record was described as an anti-war record, but there was no shouting rhetoric or catchy obscenities ala Country Joe; in fact i don't even remember if the word 'war' was mentioned. An apocalyptic, world-weary tone was prevalent but there was a glimmer of hope that some how love would save the day or at least make the "last days" bearable.

What really riveted my attention and moved me in a way that protest might not, even more than the original songs, were some slivers of early archived wax cylinder recordings Rapp slipped in to color the proceedings.

The album opens with an actual recording of "Trumpeter Landfrey" made in London in 1890. Emerging from a crackling background, Landfrey (really Landfried) introduces himself as the surviving trumpeter at the Charge of the Light Brigade who sounded the fateful call to arms at the battle of Balaklava in the Crimean War. Through a "strategic miscalculation", the cream of the British cavalry was mowed down by Russian forces in a suicidal charge on October 25, 1854. This recording of Landfrey was made and distributed by a Fund to benefit remaining veterans of the war and inform the public about the bad straits and neglect fallen upon them.
In the recording, Landfrey, now an old man, concludes by lifting his trumpet and somewhat shakily sounding the charge from that day.

Later, on Balaklava, Rapp includes a another recording, made for the same benefit, this of Florence Nightingale who served so bravely as a nurse near the scene of the battle; fighting to bring better treatment and environs for the wounded.
She spoke this in her brief message on the wax cylinder, July 30th 1890, 36 years after the disastrous charge:

"When I am no longer a memory, just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life. God bless my gallant comrades of Balaklava, and bring them safe to shore,
Florence Nightingale."

* postscript;
The wax cylinder recordings would seem to have inspired a song on the record composed by Tom Rapp called "Guardian Angel". With similar ancient crackle and hiss in the background Rapp delivers the fragile vocal as if through a megaphone, accompanied by a string quartet, and indicates fancifully on the album notes that the recording was made in Guadeloupe, Mexico c. 1929!
Easy to envision Rapp as the bespectacled expatriate proto-hippie poet, hand jittery from gin and cigarettes holding up his crumpled lines to the microphone...

"You say that the sky people don't even ask you your name
If it's you or another, it doesn't matter, to them it's all the same
But we live suspended in each other's mind
A bullet-proof sanctuary cathedral of eyes
That I offer you
that I offer you."


persephone2u said...

This sounds like a perfectly splendid album. Recordings from 1890? I love it! Great to see you blogging again, by the way. :-}

Tom the Piper's Son said...

thanks persephone....
love to lucien the omnivorous!

Bill Stankus said...

Pearls Before Swine was surreal even by late 60s standards. Fortunately there were real radio stations back then, especially on FM and because Of Tom Donahue, experimental and extended songs could be heard - often with commentary after a song ended.

I had forgotten about Balakava - thanks for the reminder.

And we still "Charge" these days - only we preface it with shock and awe. And as Country Joe once said, "Whoopee, we're all gonna die."

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Bill -
Just two years of listening to KPPC in Los Angeles back in the late 60's and the choice, sensitive, narrative, ass-kickingly beautiful outrageously well-informed radio dj-ing of the likes of Tom Donahue, Don Hall, Firesign Theatre, and B Mitchell Reed did more to expand my musical horizons than a lifetime of independent and suggested music sampling.

There are a few great online public radio stations - i love American Routes, KJAZ in NYC and some of the stations out of Ireland but I've heard nothing to match the early pioneers like Tom Donahue etal.

great to hear from you Bill. i'm enjoying your blogs...

I must away into my Eschermoblile.