Weldon Kees as Songwriter and Pianist


Weldon Kees Performs Weldon Kees: The Songs of 1953-1955
by Edward Brunner

[a review of Holiday Rag a CD from Badger Press, Pittsburgh, Pa.,
distributed by Barry Thorpe, P.O. Box 888, Trinidad, CA 95570
e-mail bthorpe@radc.com]

[NOTE: Throughout this review we have provided audio excerpts from the CD in RealAudio format. 
A RealAudio player is required. Click here or on the RealAudio logo below to download your own free player.]

When 36-year old Weldon Kees shifted the base of his operations from New York City to San Francisco in the summer of 1950 one reason he did so was to escape what he called the insularity of the eastern cultural establishment, which had been unable to deal with a writer who was an accomplished modern poet, an up-and-coming abstract expressionist painter, and a well-regarded critic of such popular arts as film and jazz. In San Francisco, Kees apparently felt more at home – if such a concept is appropriate at all for Kees – and with startling speed he developed several new talents that had not been on display in New York City One was a talent for film-making, which issued in several government-financed Department of Health documentaries but also "Apex Hotel," his own experimental film. Another talent was for photography, which produced the collaboration with Jurgen Ruesch on the pioneer book of semiotic readings, Non-verbal Communication, with illustrations from Kees’s photos. And still another was for music, which resulted in a musical revue, "The Poets’ Follies of 1955," a local hit in which Kees participated as songwriter, actor and pianist.

That material from this revue, along with other songs for which Kees contributed the lyrics, has now been made available is an important step forward in understanding not only Kees’s artistry but also the circumstances surrounding his final months. Kees’s songwriting, according to Raymond Nelson, "represents a major aspect of his activity after late 1953. Much of his last eighteen months of correspondence consists of deferential but appropriately upbeat letters of application to the Mills Brothers, the country singers Homer and Jethro, Hoagy Carmichael or other show-business figures in hopes of making a contact or placing a song" (Nelson 845). Along with writing those letters, Kees also tape-recorded in 1953 and 1954 a number of songs with a new-found friend and collaborator, Bob Helm, the clarinetist for Turk Murphy’s New Orleans style jazz band. (These tapes, which had been kept by Helm, are back in circulation through the efforts of Ann Hayes, an English professor at Carnegie Mellon, who had them restored and remastered into the seventeen tracks of the CD entitled Holiday Rag.)

It is, of course, extraordinary to hear Kees at the piano performing his own lyrics. If these were intended as demo tapes for possible producers and publishers, they seem more playful than professional. A practical reason for making such tapes, of course, would have been as a guard against copyright infringement. Though I’ve not compared the contents with whatever surviving playbills exist of the revue that Kees co-produced (or the sequel that he planned), it seems to me that more than half the numbers were designed for that setting. Of the others, four or five seem to be songs designed for professional singers and aimed at the larger commercial market for pop tunes that still existed in the early 1950s. And there are two ragtime compositions by Kees that feature his solo piano work. [RealAudio Excerpt] Except for these two, Helm is a presence on all tracks, stating on clarinet an ornamented version of the melody and then prodding and jogging it in various ways (he also plays a washboard rhythm accompaniment on two or three). Out of the fifteen vocals on the disc, Helm sings four in a reedy, sometimes-wobbly tenor and Kees sings the rest in an expressive baritone that is for the most part disarmingly chipper.

It is not entirely surprising that Kees should have developed these particular musical skills – though as always, it is startling to see how little time it took him to become adept at them. (He bought his first set of oils and canvases in early 1944 and by 1948 he was mounting a one-man show in a New York gallery.) The hero of Nothing Happens, the novel he began in 1938 and abandoned in 1939, was a young man who played in dance bands in Los Angeles, where Kees had spent the summer and autumn of 1935. The first piece he published in Time, after being hired there in 1943, was on the pianist and song-writer Thomas ("Fats") Waller, and later that year, in a review for the New Republic he knowingly ridiculed a novelist who was attempting to describe one of the witty, jagged and dazzlingly idiosyncratic clarinet solos by Charles ("Pee Wee") Russell through such florid language as "The music began slow, easy as the rising of a bird over a prairie land with spaces of sky to twirl in and to fall. It began like the timid prayer of a child …" (73) In 1948 his diatribe against the dilution of the popular art of early jazz by commercialized sweet bands, "Muskrat Ramble: Popular and Unpopular Music" (published in the Partisan Review), displayed a remarkably thorough knowledge of popular music in the postwar years. The essay further condemns bebop innovators like John Birks ("Dizzy") Gillespie for their attention-getting antics as well as dismisses West Coast orchestrators like Stan Kenton for their "fixated uses of a series of augmented chords" and their "echo chamber effects and hollow imitations of Debussy and Stravinsky" ("Muskrat" 620).

These attitudes toward Bebop and Progressive Jazz remind us that Kees was famously uncomfortable with many aspects of modern life, though it is crucially important to note that he wrote poems about those disturbing aspects not by disengaging from them but with an exquisite sense of the edginess and the anxiety that they activated. The songs collected here that seem written for the musical revues express that discomfort with modern life by attacking it satirically. As one might expect from a revue, they mix in-jokes with timely references. "Culture Vulture Lucy" is "the creature from Telegraph Hill": [RealAudio Excerpt]

Now Lucy reads – quite a lot
And Lucy thinks – God knows what!
Her collection of Henry Miller
Crowds out Stephen Spender
And doesn’t "send" her.

Kees’s signature in these lyrics is most often a witty rhyme that arrives unexpectedly. Elsewhere, Kees rhymes "whistle" with "beneficial" and "put a throttle" with "Aristotle." The lyrics also display an intricate, even extravagant sense of assonance and consonance. Lucy is called a "creature" in part to carry forward that "-ture" sound from "culture" and "vulture."

Kees’s cynical eye is evident throughout, skewering everyone from the pretentious highbrow like Lucy to the blithe lowbrow who asserts "I like a picture with a chase at the end, / With tires squealing round a dangerous bend" to the middlebrow who actually believes in the formulas for self-improvement. "Poison to Men" is Kees and Helm’s most elaborate exposť of that belief, spoken here by in a feminine voice: [RealAudio Excerpt]

I made myself lovely both inside and out
With Mum and Lavoris and something called Scout;
I’m fragrant with Lifebuoy; I never eat ‘kraut.
-- Still I’m poison to men.

The linguaphone boys taught me ever so much
In lending my accent in French the right touch
And I can say "Yes" in Swahili or Dutch
-- Still I’m like poison to men

I know how to cook like the chefs at the Ritz
The New School for Research has sharpened my wits
The Slender Salon worked till everything fits
-- Still I’m poison to men

Kees’s misogynist tendencies surface here, and also in the tag line that describes Lucy as "the girl you’d like to roast on a grill." This "cannibal" theme recurs (perhaps it was daring in the early 1950s): "One Man’s Meat (Is Another Man’s Poison)" runs through several juxtapositions that promote relativism (such as "this man’s jail is another man’s hotel") and ends with: "One day you’ll be another man’s meat."

In his poems, Kees’s distrust of the modern often places him on the verge of turning back to a nostalgic past – except that turn is never quite sustained. In these revue pieces, that nostalgic turn is more openly developed in productions that borrow heavily from older song styles like 1920s jazz. Like the "hokum music" of the jug band, "Television Papa" develops a series of double entendres that update a blues tradition in which the sexual is referred to in ways that are entertainingly blatant even as they pretend to masquerade as secretive.

Television papa, television papa –
Your picture tube is gettin’ thin
I used to get such fine reception from you every night
But now your cathode ray has lost a lot of its light

And so on through several playfully scurrilous choruses:. "Your scanner beam is all burnt out" … "Now all I’m gettin’ is the faintest hum." Even closer to the jug band repertoire is "I Don’t Want Any More," which opens:

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 lotta words o’ wisdom ‘bout When to Stop:
They called it The Golden Mean
And I’m here to say
It’s good advice today …

The entire song is an ironic celebration of the virtues of moderation, always comprehended after the fact: "I leaned against the wall, the sign said ‘Fresh Paint’; / And then I decided on some self-restraint."

What puts these tunes over is the combination of Helm’s elegantly florid clarinet doodlings and Kees’s trim barrelhouse piano lines. Kees obviously had some instruction in the piano before arriving in San Francisco – what upper middle class kid in the midwest could escape adolescence in the late 1920s and early 1930s without several years of piano lessons? – but it was traditional jazz piano players in the Bay Area who opened up possibilities he had not seen before. If the "Cool" sounds of West Coast jazz were complexly brewing in the south of the state around Los Angeles’s Central Avenue district and clubs like The Lighthouse, in northern California it was the New Orleans style of the Turk Murphy band (in which Helm was a major player) that was regarded, in the words of Ted Gioia, as "the extreme of hipness" (69). "In the late 1940s, when jazz had already undergone a revolution elsewhere," Gioia writes, "San Francisco was still holding on to the same New Orleans-inflected music – now mostly played by white Dixieland enthusiasts – it had embraced after the Great War" (62). The early jazz that Kees had invoked as a long-lost Golden Age in his 1948 Partisan Review piece had never been absent from the Bay Area. An enthusiastic amateur pianist could reasonably emulate aspects of this earlier, simpler style. "I like to think my own work at the keyboard has taken a sudden improvement," he wrote to Norris Getty on December 28, 1950, adding that he had been encouraged by exposure to Paul Lingle, "probably the most exciting pianists I ever heard, very influenced by [Jelly Roll] Morton but swings more" (Knoll 146). Kees was a keen student of Morton’s music, and his Nation review of Mr. Jelly Roll (1951), Alan Lomax’s compilation of remarks by the New Orleans pianist, was extravagant with praise: "He was not only one of the best singers and pianists of a period when talent was prodigal but a composer and arranger of a far more impressive and original nature than any of his contemporaries – and there have been no successors" (174). When the University of California Press asked Kees in June 1954 to contribute an essay to an anthology that examined the "artist’s intent," it was natural for him to propose an essay on Ferdinand ("Jelly Roll") Morton (1885?-1941), arguing that "his aims and stated ideas add up to a real esthetic, just as the ideas of a great painter or writer do."

Kees’s playing clearly shows Morton’s influence (even as it should be said that the other pianist whose work dominated early jazz, Earl "Fatha" Hines, was at a technical level that might have been beyond Kees’s reach, at least at this point in his development). He certainly knew enough about the conventions of early piano to write and play his own rags. The two that begin and end this CD, "Holiday Rag" and "Coastline Rag," are authentic period-style compositions that follow the conventions of the rag, right down to what Gunther Schuller has called its "original square 2/4 feeling" (Schuller 144). In "Holiday Rag," [RealAudio Excerpt] after the chromatic changes of the introductory four measures, Kees launches a melodic line that delicately flirts with blue notes (measures 9, 11 and 12) in which the artistry consists as much in selectively avoiding them as in using them – a very Morton-like characteristic. 

Kees’s facility at the piano should not be overstated. He is not a professional, and there are moments when Helm’s elegant control reveals a level of musicianship that Kees only displays irregularly. Nonetheless, he is never merely an amateur. His loving attention to the style of early jazz shines through most often in his understanding of "stride" piano. Morton developed, out of early ragtime, a piano style that was remarkably full of an exuberant swagger, a style that took pleasure in drawing attention to itself. "Whorehouse" piano was the description that Raymond Nelson applied to Kees’s playing , and the epithet is half-right. What it captures is the fulsome swank created by the striding chords of the pianist’s left hand intermittently punctuated by blues-inflected (and "naughty"-sounding) dissonance in the right hand. What the epithet overlooks, though, is an underlying melancholy and nostalgia that is deliberately evoked when so harmonically and rhythmically primitive a music is tenderly revived for our admiration.

Not all the playing by Kees and Helm is square in this tradition of early jazz. The two also collaborated on songs intended to break into the commercial market for high quality pop tunes. In the fall of 1953 both men visited Los Angeles to see Nesuhi Ertugen, not yet the legendary Director of Atlantic Records but just beginning his career by working as a recording director for a local jazz label. Ertugen introduced them to a music publisher who offered discouraging advice. "There are two kinds of songs," Kees explained in an October 16, 1953, letter to Norris Getty in which he outlined what he had learned, "‘lightweight’ and ‘big’; what qualities distinguish these categories I am not at all sure. Seemed, however, from this by no means unauthoritative source that most of our numbers fall into the lightweight classification, though he pounced upon one with a gleam in his eye that I found welcome and announced that this one ‘might be it,’ i.e., BIG" (Knoll 175)

What number this was Kees doesn’t disclose. It seems unlikely that any of the commercially-designed songs collected here would fall into either category. These torch songs are all dark and brooding compositions. If the revue numbers recall the satirical edge in Kees’s verse, these others align themselves with the melancholy that so deeply pervades many of his poems. "Spring Didn’t Come This Year" is the kind of song that deserves a careful musical setting, to be half-sung, half-spoken in a smoky nightclub setting by a singer with a smoky nightclub voice. The song is about the loss of one’s love, and the darkness within the lyrics is handled with disturbing subtlety. We are some distance into the song before any reason is given for the despair that has overwhelmed the singer. "Spring didn’t come this year," the number begins: "Birds didn’t sing / and flowers failed to bloom (long pause) for me." [RealAudio Excerpt] This long and dramatic pause is the distinguishing feature of the song, repeated elsewhere and raising the question of whether the singer has the will to continue. It is perhaps used most effectively in the lines: "Leaves keep falling / and I’m recalling (pause) you" where the introduction of "you" suggests the pain of recollection. These delicate phrasings appear throughout the song which, as it continues, grows more plangent, the phrases becoming longer:

What is there left to sing?
Where are the magic words to bring you (pause) on the wing?
Here, (pause) dear, (pause) remembering.

What good is the calendar now?
June is October somehow.
You had the power to change the course of the sun and the sea
Now that you’re gone (pause) the seasons are strange (pause) to me.

These longer phrases seem to be all the weightier, as if the burden has only increased the more it is expressed.

"Spring Didn’t Come This Year" seems an unlikely contender for commercial success in years when the top ten songs on the Hit Parade promoted such gems as "How Much is that Doggy in the Window? (The One with the Waggily Tail)" or "I Warm So Easy (So Dance Me Loose"). In 1955, when Kees was updating his 1948 "Muskrat Ramble" essay for reprinting in an anthology by Chandler Brossard, he looked back over the last seven years and, in the concluding sentence of an afterword, declared: "the hit parade kind of tune has become even more vacuous than it was in 1948, stressing repetition, witless lyrics, and self-pity" (198). Alec Wilder concluded his American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950 (1972) with the simple sentence: "Thus, the end of an era" (519). It is not surprising that the collaborations of Kees and Helm failed to interest commercial song publishers. The performer who would have welcomed such songs would have been the jazz vocalist who could make an audience appreciate their subtlety and who would not have hesitated to appear both pensive and articulate. The vocabulary of these songs, which is one of their delights, might easily be perceived as a barrier to mass distribution. "Take Care" (which Helm sings) includes this bridge: "I’ve had some bad news / I’ve had some sad news / Lately / To subjugate me / To a fragile condition." "They Haven’t Got a Cure for That" (also sung by Helm) begins in melancholy –

I can’t forget the way you closed your eyes
When you were kissed at our good-bye

– but then it shifts toward sophisticated whimsy: "And all the restaurants and parks where we sat: / They haven’t got a cure for that." "Cure," of course, in one sense simply suggests someone who’s "lovesick" even as it also keeps gesturing toward more practical sorts of social diseases: "There’s no pill in the store / No penicillin that restores / No oreomycin / Sufficin’ / To get me well." Kees may have been at his shrewdest when he planned to follow the locally-admired "Poets’ Follies" with a sequel. Only in such a revue – where intellectual play would be understood as a norm, where whimsy would be the order of the day – would the notable urbanity of his collaborations have a chance to be appreciated.

It has sometimes appeared as though Kees were working frenetically in the last months of his life. He was planning "Pick Up the Pieces" (the sequel to "The Poets’ Follies"), he was soliciting permission from T. S. Eliot to produce a version of "Sweeney Agonistes" for the TV show Omnibus, and he was investing heavily with Michael Grieg in a small auditorium (called The Showplace) where ongoing versions of "The Poets’ Follies" could be staged. After all, none of these projects came to fruition. They have been open to dismissal as signs of en emotional agitation and even a desperation that disturbingly surfaced in the months just before Kees vanished. But having actual examples of songs and performances by Kees before us complicates any such conclusion. The examples suggest that Kees was correct to build upon his achievements as a songwriter and a producer. Songwriting was not a distraction from emotional complications but one more way of working through them. What melancholy exists within the lyrics of these songs is, to be sure, expressed with a weightiness that suggests how powerfully bleak Kees’s vision could be. But that melancholy, as the songs reveal, was also contained and presented with understanding. Moreover, the revue lyrics while they may be cynical are positively jaunty in their spit-in-the-eye insouciance. They hardly seem the work of someone who was disoriented, on the verge of withdrawal, or confused about his future. It seems most likely that Kees felt that he had a future in producing the blend of satire and sophistication that distinguishes most of these compositions. The closing of The Showplace, then, might have been far more of an emotional disruption than it has previously seemed. Once it became clear that Kees and his partners lacked the capitol to bring the auditorium up to fire code, it may have become also clear that numerous other opportunities were also closed off. The fire marshal shut down The Showplace in June 1955, a month before Kees’s car was found abandoned on the north entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Works Cited

Copyright  © 2000 by Edward Brunner


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