Allen Ginsberg: Dope Fiend Blues (1974)

 |   |  1 min read

Allen Ginsberg: Dope Fiend Blues (1974)

Jimi Hendrix said he believed he couldn't sing, until he heard the young Bob Dylan and thought, "Well, if he can do that . . ."

As a poet drawn to song, Leonard Cohen thought much the same about Allen Ginsberg, a man who sang less like Pavarotti than a first round contestant in American Idol.

Ginsberg sing? Not really.

But Ginsberg, like Cohen a Jew drawn to Buddhism, knew that the art of the song would enhance poetic rhythm and metre and so would locate those in his poetry. His great work Howl sounds, when read aloud, like a Coltrane jazz solo, the words/notes returning to the head of the lines with "who" . . . and then spiralling out from there again.

In 1972 (or thereabouts, some say 1973) Harry Smith -- best known for his field recordings and the Anthology of American Folk Music which influenced Dylan and a whole generation -- set up his equipment in his room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and had Ginsberg record a series of readings/songs accompanied by his (Ginsberg's) faithful old harmonium which he'd bought in Benares (Varanasi).

The resulting album on the Folkways label was First Blues -- and confusingly there was a later Ginsberg album of the same title on Columbia produced by John Hammond at sessions which included Dylan. Neither album was released until the early Eighties, neither troubled even the lowest reaches of the charts.blues

As a collection of "songs" the Chelsea/Smith album would probably be unlistenable for most: Ginsberg drones and wobbles around the "tunes" and mostly they a slightly sing-song spoken word pieces with a nod to meditative chants.

But they aren't without interest: Bus Ride Balad Road to Suva (sic) is a cheerful and observant description of exactly that, a bus trip he took with Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Fiji.

And Ginsberg, always prepared to be something of a holy fool, had a fine sense of humour, as this oddball song/poem illustrates.

Now, if Allen can do it . . .


For more oddities, one-offs or songs with an interesting backstory use the RSS feed for daily updates, and check the massive back-catalogue at From the Vaults.

Share It

Your Comments

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman - Aug 24, 2010

Thanks Graham - this excerpt from Kaddish is a heartbreaker. The Beats get a bad rap today for their florid confessionalism, but when they get it right, life is released.

post a comment

More from this section   From the Vaults articles index

Ma Rainey: Toad Frog Blues (1924)

Ma Rainey: Toad Frog Blues (1924)

Few would have described Ma Rainey (1886 - 1939) as one of God's finest creations. Her pianist Thomas A. Dorsey said charitably "I couldn't say that she was a good looking woman". In... > Read more

The Ugly's: Wake Up My Mind (1965)

The Ugly's: Wake Up My Mind (1965)

Among the many unusual things about the story of the Ugly's is why a band (with an unnecessary apostrophe?) from Birmingham should have enjoyed a huge hit in Australia and New Zealand with this... > Read more

Elsewhere at Elsewhere

BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH INTERVIEWED (2000):  The people's poet laureate

BENJAMIN ZEPHANIAH INTERVIEWED (2000): The people's poet laureate

Britain's most popular serious performance poet for more than two decades, Benjamin Zephaniah, laughs as he recalls hating poetry as a kid. If you said you liked it, it was as if you were... > Read more

LARRY HENLEY INTERVIEWED (1993): The world beneath his wings

LARRY HENLEY INTERVIEWED (1993): The world beneath his wings

On this slightly hung-over weekday morning Larry Henley doesn’t look the kind of man whose words have touched a generation. He speaks with a quiet, modest and slow-drag Texas accent and... > Read more