Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

Weldon Kees Sings (and Writes) The Blues
a recording by
Weldon Kees and Bob Helm
mastered and manufactured by
Michael Cogan
Bay Records

Citations are from Weldon Kees (lyrics, piano and vocal)
and may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of Badger Press of
Berkeley, California
and the author's literary executor.

not quite a review by Arthur Mortensen

A couple of months ago I was asked via e-mail if I'd like to hear a new recording.  The correspondent was from the West Coast and I had surely heard of the main artist.  And, though I knew this would be arriving, I wasn't prepared a month later for what I heard after I'd opened the yellow jewel box and put the CD into the player:   a voice that was a combination of Leon Kottke and Ernie Kovacs singing original blues lyrics and tunes.   I looked at the jewel box's tiny liner notes (a pet peeve with all CD's, but no matter) and, as promised, the vocalist and piano player were the late Weldon Kees himself, privately recorded in sessions in the early 1950's.   Kees also had written the lyrics, while his partner, Bob Helm, had composed the tunes.   The master tapes have existed for nearly forty-five years; finally they found a record company.  While the recording quality is spotty, the end results, worked up by Badger Press's engineer, are as good as some of Lightnin' Sam Hopkins recordings.  To describe this extraordinary discovery as an historical event in the world of poetry is understatement; imagine finding a tape of DeStael singing folk songs or a manuscript of poems by Maria Callas.  Is it even fair to review such an event?

Probably not.   For me, having a recording of original songs by Weldon Kees and Bob Helm, regardless of how  Kees might sing (or play the piano), was so exciting I didn't much care if they were very good.   However, these pieces are enjoyable and listenable.  Bob Helm, still active in classic jazz and blues bands on the West Coast,  is a terrific musician with a strong background in blues, Dixie (New Orleans) and the later Chicago style. . He has played with Lu Watters, Turk Muprhy, and is still heard at the Dawn Club, Hambone Kelly's and Gold Dust. Kees is rarely left behind on piano; even the off-key keyboard would be typical of a New Orleans club.   Kees's interpretations of his own lyrics are as good as some pretty famous "up country" bluesman. . The recordings, cut from 1951 to 1954, were from sessions in their homes and this sometime shows. However, in a recording like this, such is a plus. To hear Kees and Helm discuss what they're going to do or are about to do adds immeasurably to the joy of hearing this. The lyrics themselves range from standard blues to sardonic. They came together with the tunes, according to Ann Hayes (jacket notes) by phone, correspondence and tape recorder. The general rule, she says, "was Kees for lyrics, Helm for tunes."

"Culture Vulture" is a high point.

Kees, speaking in the foreground, asks it "to be a little rougher" and off they go:

     Culture Vulture Lucy, that creature from Telegraph Hill,
     Culture Vulture Lucy, a girl too black to roast on a grill.
    Now, Lucy reads quite a lot,
    Lucy thinks God knows what.
    Her collection of Henry Miller,
    crowds of Steven Spender --
    and does it send her!

    She's Culture Vulture Lucy...

I'm not sure if this would pass muster today.  Most likely not -- but you'd hardly miss the mordant humor as anyone but Kees.   I doubt if line 2 is a racial comment, but these days it would probably be tagged as one instead of for what it is.  Who is she?

If she was, she's probably not anymore.   But we've known a few like her, if only a few were women.  The recording was made in 1953.   Another...

    You can't put a throttle on a bottle;
    You have to put a throttle on yourself.
    Mr. Aristotle and some others let drop
    a lot of words of wisdom of when to stop.
    They called it the Golden Mean;
    I'm here to say that it's good advice today.

    I don't want anymore; I just don't want anymore.
    I had an awful lot a little while ago.
    Enough to keep me going if I take it slow...

The previous lines are drawn from "I Don't Want Any More," a straightforward song about excess, ostensibly about alcohol, but anything will do, and finds Kees featured on vocal again.   His singing on this leaves a little to be desired; I don't think I'd want to hear his rendition of La Traviata.  But as a Kees song, it's lyrics are both sad and funny and unmistakably his.    And for La Traviata, there's always X.J. Kennedy.

It's not so unusual for writers to be musicians.   One thinks of French Surrealist Boris Vian (Mood Indigo) who played with Mezzrow and was a contemporary of Weldon Kees (he also died about the same time, though not by throwing himself off the Golden Gate; a more prosaic heart attack sufficed).   Any number of contemporary poets play the piano.  There are even a few composers.   But few play in public and fewer for posterity.

"Poison to Men," though the tune is a virtual reprise of "Culture Vulture...," portrays a "girl who turns up every Sunday on the comic page" through a litany of all the right products she uses (mentioned by name -- verboten nowadays without trademarks and footnotes), but to no avail, for...

    Still I'm like poison to men....

It sounds as though Kees and Helm are doing a softshoe in the background for the next five minutes, but it's Helm on a washboard.

    I've made myself dainty with buckets of stuff
    and tingled my skin with astringents enough
    to shrink up a hippo or wash out a bluff.
    Still, I'm like poison to men...

This is a wonderful lyric about "popularity," as it was then known.

    I'm crawling with culture; I smell like a rose.
    Still I'm like poison to men.....

The lyrics might be described as Kees poems without the complications.  This is appropriate; the blues are not intended for the higher metaphysical but are generally of this world.

A falsetto Kees does "Pick Up the Pieces."

    Pick up the pieces; that's all that's left of me now.
    I'm like a cocktail glass that's shattered in your hand.
    Pick up the pieces, pieces that once were my heart.
    You'll never care if it mends or if it ends or breaks apart....

The mocking performance style belies the lyric and is suggestive of the intentions of many of these tunes.   All of that fits blues lyrics well enough.  Listen carefully the next time you hear Mississippi John Hirt or Hopkins; the blues is not necessarily tears in your beer.  Sometimes the wet cheeks come from a slice of onion held to the nose.

While this recording is not at the level of Kees's poetry, it is a very valuable, accessible and entertaining hearing of a writer held as somewhat of a mystery by many.   The lyrics, cynical, mordantly humorous, and occasionally maudlin (not without irony though), are an interesting addition to the poems of his collected work.    The recording is highly recommended and Badger Press and Bay Records commended for releasing it. Distribution is handled by Barry Thorpe, PO Box 888, Trinidad, CA 95570. Checks should be made out to Ann Hayes, Badger Press, for $19.

                                Arthur Mortensen

 If you can't see the table of contents at left, click here to return to page one.