|Host Joey Cain with singer Daniel Redman in front of a photograph of Walt Whitman and his â€śfriendâ€ť Peter Doyle. Photo by Rink.
The James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center of the San Francisco Public Library presented â€śThe Chants Resuming: Singing the First Chapter of Leaves of Grass, a live performance by Daniel Redman on April 12. The Hormel Library was standing room only when Redman gave a most impressive and awe inspiring interpretation by song of the first chapter of the gay poet Whitmanâ€™s classic long poem.
Taking his cue from the ancient sung narratives that carried a peopleâ€™s being, history, and identity from generation to generation, Redman had set the first chapter of Leaves of Grass to song as a great formative narrative of queer people.
In every culture and community, there are those stories and songs that transmit the past, identify a common bond, and point to a shared vision of the future such as exists in the Koran, Confuciusâ€™ sayings in his Analects, and in selections from the Bible. Redman explained that Leaves of Grass was Whitmanâ€™s attempt to create something similar for queer people.
Though books like The Iliad and The Analects were written in different times and places, they share something in common - all of them have been set to music. Redman noted that the entire Hebrew Bible, for instance, is punctuated with musical notations, with different song patterns for different sections.
The Greek storytellers sung the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart. Setting a text to music helps to explain it, and it also helps the singer to remember the words. Over the last few years, Redman has worked to set Whitmanâ€™s queer epic, Leaves of Grass, to song, a cappella if you will, without musical accompaniment and memorized all 25 poems within the long poem flawlessly without the use of written notes. Curator Joey Cain was proud to introduce Redman.
The lengthy piece was at times sung as a Catholic litany or liturgical invocation; other times, it was a somewhat monotone chanting; sometimes it had a traditional Hebraic Torah-like flavor; sometimes it echoed the sound of an ancient monk reciting; at times it was like a sailorâ€™s sea shantey, particularly so in â€śIn Cabinâ€™d Ships at Sea.â€ť Especially impressive was his extremely rapidly chanted (triple-time) stanzas of â€śEidolonsâ€ť a quarter of the way through the long poem: â€śLo, I or you, or woman, man, or state, known or unknown; we seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build; but really eidolons.â€ť Also quite striking was Redmanâ€™s very slow and reverent interpretation (in direct contrast to the aforementioned stanza) of â€śFor Him I Sing.â€ť
Rather moving was his interpretation of the famous â€śI Hear America Singingâ€ť stanza with the couplet of â€śThe day what belongs to the day; at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.â€ť And quite stirring and inspirational was â€śShut Not Your Doorsâ€ť with the couplet of â€śA book separate, not linkâ€™d with the rest nor felt by the intellect; but you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page.â€ť
Redman said he is suggesting and requesting a composer to help him put music to the chants. â€śMaybe there is someone out there who feels led to put music to the poem,â€ť he said. â€śOr perhaps they would find a different rhythm to the piece.â€ť He has not yet recorded his version of the poem.
â€śThe Chants Resuming: Singing the First Chapter of Leaves of Grassâ€ť has been presented in conjunction with the ongoing exhibit, â€śIn Paths Untrodden: Walt Whitmanâ€™s Calamus Poems and the Radical Faeries,â€ť on display in the Hormel Center through May 19.
The year 2010 was the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Whitmanâ€™s homo-affectional-poem cluster, Calamus. This exhibition, curated by Joey Cain, explores the influence Whitman and the Calamus poems had on the earliest GLBT freedom pioneers. It also traces out the social, spiritual, and political roles that Whitman saw the â€śdear love of comradesâ€ť playing in the ongoing creation of his â€śAmerica.â€ť Whitman and his poemâ€™s continuing influence on visionary queer/ gay consciousness is explored through images and documents from the contemporary gay menâ€™s political/spiritual movement, The Radical Fairies.
Redman is an attorney in the Elder Law Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. His LGBT journalism has appeared in The Nation, Slate, The American Prospect, and The New Republic. In 2011, he was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award for magazine writing.
Do catch the massive Calamus display before it leaves the Hormel museum mid-May.