Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Poetry's Rat Pack

I was thinking, for no traceable reason, of the Rat Pack, and particularly of Sammy Davis, Jr's version of "Mr Bojangles," which is not the most satisfying version of that song, because Sammy puts that hard shell on everything he sings--he marches Mr. Bojangles out to the exercise yard and orders him to dance, which is not really what the song calls for. Jerry Jeff Walker sits quietly in that drunk tank with the old dancer, lets him wake up and get his bearings, and then asks, Please...

Sammy sings with that authority that's imposed on a song. Frank, on the other hand, has an authority that's just there...he never has to show it. I'm not sure I'm saying one way is better than the other, but since Frank was the greatest pop singer of all, I suppose I am. Dean doesn't concern himself with authority at all; he's an egalitarian sort of guy, as he approaches a song.

Wondering how much further I could stretch this, I considered the some of the other ballad singers of the era. Elvis, who at his best approached a song more as a supplicant than an authority. Johnny Mathis, who pretends to supplicate, but actually holds the whip hand -- the Uriah Heep of singers, without the whininess.

We look to find and establish a voice in whatever art form we practice, and this issue of relationship to the material is part of that establishment of voice. I wonder if one could look at poets the same way? Frost our Frank, Stevens our Sammy, Williams our Dean?

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