Day 6: Nurse’s Song

I mentioned yesterday that a group of us traveled to Pittsburgh to see Allen Ginsberg when I was in college at West Virginia University.  It was an intense experience. Ginsberg did not just read—he performed his poems, often accompanying himself on his harmonium. I will never forget it.

At the end of his epic reading, Ginsberg closed with a sing-a-long version of William Blake’s “The Nurse’s Song” from Songs of Innocence, originally published in 1789. You probably know some of Blake’s poems. We learn many of them as nursery rhymes, like “tiger, tiger, burning bright // in the forests of the night.”

Blake’s poems were originally performed as songs, but we do not have any record of how they were performed and there is no surviving musical notation to tell us what they sounded like. Ginsberg spent years recreating the poems from Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience as songs, inventing his own melodies and performing them as Blake did with a harmonium. Ginsberg’s interpretations may be accurate, but there is no way to know for sure.

I like “The Nurse’s Song.” I like it in part because of experiencing Ginsberg’s performance. In Pittsburgh, the audience departed the auditorium singing along with the chorus, “And all the hills echo-ed // and all the hills echo-ed.” It was beautiful. I will never forget it.

I wonder what Miles experienced in the same way. I wonder what he heard and saw and felt and enjoyed with the same feeling. A movie? A book? A concert? I know he loved hearing the live jazz in town on weeknights. I know he loved to skate and watch great skaters. I know he loved to spend time in the woods and camp. I know he loved seeing movies at the Campus Theater. I know he enjoyed a lot of things, and I wonder what remained with him.  What stuck as deeply impressed in his heart as “The Nurse’s Song” remains with me?

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Nurse’s Song by William Blake (1757–1827)

WHEN the voices of children are heard on the green,
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast,
And everything else is still.

‘Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.’

‘No, no, let us play, for it is yet day,
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly,
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.’

‘Well, well, go and play till the light fades away,
And then go home to bed.’
The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d
And all the hills echoèd.

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