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Joseph Azize: on Elton John and Leon Russell’s ‘I Should Have Sent Roses’

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I Should Have Sent Roses

Sublime, poignant, elegiac: the first words to spring to mind when I think of this melody from the album The Union, by Elton John and Leon Russell. In Gurdjieff influenced terms, I would say that the person who wrote this had to be in a heightened state of emotional self-consciousness. He had to be present to the workings of his feeling centre to allow this lyrical and sensitive melody to emerge without constricting it. Some melodies owe more to moving centre, others owe more to emotional or intellectual centre, and some, such as this, are products of the higher emotional centre. But you can tell straight away that this was written from somewhere essential. (For an explanation of the centres, see Sophia Wellbeloved, Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, 133-5; and for “essence”, see 71-3.)

Leon Russell, who has produced some of the most lyrical melodies of the last fifty years (e.g. “This Masquerade” and “Superstar”), reaches new heights with this masterpiece. I would place it almost on a par with the melody of Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”. And yet Leon Russell did not create it: no one but God can create. However, it is to Leon Russell’s credit that he could arrange the melody which arose from somewhere within his “common presence”. What happens in such work, and how we can recognize the operation  are matters I shall address on another occasion.

While my response is, and must be subjective, I feel that the melody perfectly matches the lyrics by Bernie Taupin, which tell the story of a lost love from the point of view of the man who has lost. The boy knows that the girl has gone, and that he bears responsibility. When he was with her, he took her for granted. Ambivalently, he goes on to say both that he would treat her better now, and that she deserves someone more thoughtful. He addresses her with understanding and self-deprecation:

Are you standing outside?

Looking up at the sky, cursing a wandering star?

Well, if I were you, I’d throw rocks at the moon

And I’d say, “Damn you wherever you are!”

This is so apt that it’s almost humorous. A “wandering star” because, perhaps, he did not fit into his place in the order of things. Throwing stones at the moon, maybe because the moon is for lovers and lunatics: she being the lover and he the lunatic.

I don’t know where to start,

This cage round my heart locked up what I meant to say,

What I felt all along the way,

Just wondering how come I couldn’t take your breath away.

At various times we all feel something like this expression of mixed confidence, self-doubt and exasperation – at the same time that he believes she should have been overwhelmed by him, he confesses that he is confounded that she was not. Like Russell, we often feel that we have long wished to express something but that we could not, just could not, because of a sort of emotional tightness. It is as if we would choke were we to try and say it.

‘Cause I never sent roses. I never did enough.

I didn’t know how to love you, though I loved you so much.

And I should have sent roses when you crossed my mind,

For no other reason than the fact you were mine.

This is strange but true: we often feel that we love but do not know how to put that love into action. And of course, there are two errors: to think that an overt action is always needed, and to forget that actions are often needed. It is only people who are thinking philosophically who imagine that no action is needed. If you have read In Search of the Miraculous, it is fatal to take the idea that we “cannot do” in a formatory way to mean that we cannot therefore do anything at all.

Looking back on my life,

If fate should decide to let me do it all over again,

I’d build no more walls.

I’d stay true and recall the fragrance of you on the wind

This is the paradox which Ouspensky paints in unforgettable terms in The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. We make a mistake, we forget ourselves and our higher aims. Then we believe that if we had the opportunity again we would not fall into the same trap. But should the occasion arise again, we would make exactly the same error: we would forget at exactly the same place. And yet, there is a way to escape from the curse, and that is to remember oneself, hence the importance of Gurdjieff’s ideas and method to religions and religious systems.

The reference to fate is especially interesting to me, because it is a topic which is exercising me at the moment. Fate acts only upon essence, and this song, as I have said, is an essence-song. It is only when we are closer to essence that we can start to have any sense at all of what our destiny or fate is: that is, what it is that we are called to above and beyond the vicissitudes of life. If there is a “law of accident”, there is also a “law of destiny” which works itself out despite whatever other causal connections and chains may be playing themselves out and, I would suggest a “law of miracles” (see “Fate” at 80, “Law of Accident” at 115-6 and “miracle” at 144).

You’ll do better than me.

Someone who can see,

Right from the start give you all that you need

And I’ll slip away, knowing I’m half the man I should be.

There is genuine love here: for love seeks what is best for the beloved irrespective of the cost to oneself. Also, love brings impartiality, and the statement, “knowing I’m half the man I should be”, is a good impartial description of each one of us.

The topic of “lost loves” is a significant one: a person who never wonders about past friendships and romances and why they ended, to use a neutral term, is quite possibly incapable of reflection. I have published on this blog one of the most important pieces I ever transcribed from Mr Adie’s diaries, just on that topic. Bernie Taupin is also responsible for one of the most touching songs Elton John ever wrote, the much under-appreciated “I Feel like a Bullet in the Gun of Robert Ford”. And in each case, “Robert Ford” and “I Should Have Sent Roses”, Taupin was working with one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and each result has been a masterpiece.

And that brings me, briefly, to the topic of Leon Russell. There is no doubt of his uncanny talent at playing the piano and song writing. As I have already said, I feel that he produced some of the greatest songs of our time. For my money, his piano playing is better even than that of Elton John, and I am an Elton John fan. I remember, in the 70s, thinking that Leon Russell would go on to conquer the world, as they say. But then something happened. What? To an extent, perhaps, he sabotaged his own career. It was never the same with him after the 1975 album Will O’The Wisp. Then, Elton John enticed him to The Union in 2010 (Elton did not have to seduce very hard, it would appear), and Russell’s own account of the production of that album is found on “In the Hands of Angels”.

I have carefully praised the melody and the lyrics rather than the track. I feel that the production is too heavy. Very often, a beautiful melody is obscured by too much backing. If you do listen to this track, try and imaginatively screen out the brass. My own guess is that T-Bone Burnett sensed the beauty of the melody, and tried to raise it to prominence with the trumpets and trombones. But I don’t think it’s worked.

Still, while the arrangement is rather more heavy than I would like, it is extraordinary that after so long out of the public eye, this artist of astounding abilities would return and reveal so much about himself. I think that took strength: the sort of strength which this remarkable song reveals.

Joseph.Azize@gmail.com

8 July 2012

JOSEPH AZIZE has published in ancient history, law and Gurdjieff studies. His first book The Phoenician Solar Theology treated ancient Phoenician religion as possessing a spiritual depth comparative with Neoplatonism, to which it contributed through Iamblichos. The second book, “Gilgamesh and the World of Assyria”, was jointly edited with Noel Weeks. It includes his article arguing that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice.

The third book, ‘George Mountford Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia’ represents his attempt to present his teacher (a direct pupil of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky) to an international audience.The fourth book, edited and written with Peter El Khouri and Ed Finnane, is a new edition of Britts Civil Precedents. He recommends it to anyone planning to bring proceedings in an Australian court of law.

“Maronites” is pp.279-282 of “The Encyclopedia of Religion in Australia” published by Cambridge University Press and edited by James Jupp.

Alan Dundes’ “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” & “Fables of the Ancients?” + “Music of the Prieuré” played by Rosemary Nott

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Edith Fowke  

JOHN ROBERT COLOMBO PAGE

One of my intellectual mentors was the late Edith Fowke. Her name is unlikely to be recognized outside the country, but within Canada it is not only recognized but well respected. (Her name is what is called “an aptonym,” for “Fowke” is close to “folk,” so that anyone hearing it for the first time would automatically equates the woman with the discipline – and rightly so: Edith Fowke, folklorist.) In her later years she served as the country’s leading folklorist, for she devoted the second half of her professional life to recording, collecting, documenting, and publishing folk songs and traditional tales, including myths and legends, notably Native ones – Inuit and Indian.

Edith encouraged me to compile, annotate, and publish collections of Canadian “trivia” on the principle that “one man’s trivia is another man’s treasure.” She was not prolific but she was precise and passionate. The first half of her life was spent as a political and social activist who espoused the cause of organized labour and democratic socialism. An argument with the Lewises – David and his son Stephen – who dominated the national socialist party for two generations – led her to her seek new fields of endeavour, and to train and then work as a folklorist. She was no stranger to national radio broadcasting, and she ultimately joined the Humanities Division of York University in Toronto where she taught the folklore subjects. Upset by the direction the Lewis’s were taking the CCF/NDP, she had decided that if she could not influence our future, she could reveal the shape of our past.

She was a little woman who always wore pink – coats, jackets, blouses, scarves, trousers, skirts – and her favourite hymn was Blake’s “Jerusalem.” I had the honour to lead the hundred or so mourners and colleagues in singing Parry’s version of that visionary anthem at the “celebration of her life” held at York University in Toronto. She died suddenly on March 18, 1996, at the age of eighty-three, but nobody who ever met her ever really forgot her.

 Alan Dundes (photo Saaxon Donnelly)

I always remembered Edith’s enthusiasm for the work of the late Alan Dundes. He was a Professor of Anthropology and Folklore at the University of California, Berkeley, and until his death in 2005 at the age of seventy-one, he brought to wide public attention the cultural and psychological insights brought about by his study of “folkloristics.” He saw the discipline as one that shed light on the customs of the past and the present, but also on cultural lore and human psychology and behaviour. He caused a stir when he wrote at length about the homoerotics of American football. He did more than anyone to familiarize the North American public with the prevalence of “urban legends” so that the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Cat in the Microwave, and the Wife on the Flight are recognized for the fabrications that they are. He argued that repeating them expressed deep-seated human needs. He published a half-dozen collections of these legends, with amusing and informed commentaries.

Readers of this web-blog will probably be interested in the themes of two of Dundes’ lesser-known books. It was Edith’s delight in Dundes’ work in general that drew me to seek out his writings and these related studies in particular. They are of concern to people who have a curiosity about the construction and constitution of world’s Holy Scriptures. The two books are available in trade paperback editions published by a lesser-known imprint: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (The company, with offices in Maryland and Oxford, has a website.) The books have quite arresting titles.

The first book is called “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” (1999) and the second is called “Fables of the Ancients?” (2003). While I usually like to paraphrase the contents of the books that I review for this website, here I will merely summarize the author’s arguments and suggest their importance. Then I will turn my attention to a newly published item that is of direct interest to the readers of this web-blog.

The subtitle of “Holy Writ as Oral Lit” is simplicity itself – “The Bible as Folklore.” Dundes argues that the Bible – by which he means the King James Version, but his approach applies to any translation or version of the Old and New Testaments – contains an immense amount of what he calls “folklore,” perhaps 20 percent by his estimate. In under 130 pages he reviews this “lore” in scripture and in very clearly, scholarly prose he notes the presence of the hallmarks of folklore – multiplicity and variety – that are characteristics of the Bible.

The biblical accounts are retellings of oral tales and the retellings differ in predictable ways. Yet far from being proof that the Bible is riddled with falsehoods, its nature attests to the value of the book as a record of the beliefs of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, and it alludes to the problems that the texts present to scribes and scholiasts and redacteurs who have tried repeatedly to preserve them and then interpret them.

Dundas looks at how it is impossible to reconcile internal textual repetitions and variations in terms of number, name, and sequence. As well, there is duplication of texts in the various books of the Bible. Sequences of action are inconsistent. There is no agreed-upon text of the Ten Commandments, the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the names of the Twelve Disciples, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sermon on the Mount … I could go on.

What had long puzzled me was the Creation myth described in Genesis. Which came first, “the heaven and the earth” or “the earth and the heavens”? The answer depends on whether one prioritizes or privileges (to use vogue phrases) Genesis 1:1 or Genesis 2:4. And why is the word “heaven” in the singular when it next appears as “heavens” in the plural? Dundes offers almost one hundred instances of such “confusions.” It is enough to give pause to the reader of “the Bible as living literature,” and it should cause conniptions for the “true believer” who holds to the theory of “the inerrancy” of the Holy Scripture. Biblical scholars, whether rabbis or priests, have evolved ways around these problems. Yet to Dundes, such concerns are proof that the Bible is a human document and a tribute to “the voice of the people” (to use an expression that he himself eschews). He concludes with the statement that the Bible may well be “the greatest book in the world,” but “it is truly folklore, and it is high time that it is recognized as such.”

“Fables of the Ancients?” is in many ways a more amazing study. At 90 pages it is a succinct study of (in the words of its subtitle) “Folklore in the ‘Qur’an.’” Dundes recalls that when he announced to his colleagues at the University of California that he was planning to continue his study of folklore in Holy Scripture by extending his analyses from the Bible to the “Qur’an,” he was warned that what he was undertaking might be dangerous to life, limb, and career. He was not deterred. “I soon discovered that there seemed to be many ‘formulas’ as well as several traditional stories, stories that were not simply retellings of narratives found in the Bible. To my knowledge, no folklorist has ever discussed the presence of both formulas and folktales in the ‘Qur’an.’” So Dundes is the first such commentator.

So far he seems to be the last, as well. No one has followed in his footsteps, though he does make this easy by pointing out that, unlike the Bible, which is recognized to be “the word of God” as vouchsafed to man, the “Qur’an” is considered to be the actual words of Allah orally transmitted by the Archangel Gabriel to Muhammed the Prophet. So the “Qur’an” is 100 percent folklore. It is admittedly an oral composition and one that is rich in tell-tale oral formulas and folktales. Dundes goes to great length to document these. Given more space (and time), I would identify these and discuss them. Dundes sidesteps the issue of the unusual origin of the “Qur’an,” content to comment on its oral rather than its linear construction.

The title of the book, complete with its question-mark, comes from the “Qur’an” itself. In Surah 6:25, unbelievers are quoted as dismissing the book with these words: “This is nothing but fables of the ancients.” Surah 8:31 repeats the formula: “Whenever Our revelations are recited to them, they say: ‘We have heard them. If we wished, we could say the like. They are but fables of the ancients.’” Dundes states that, given the oral nature of the “Qur’an,” it is inevitably replete with tale-types like The Seven Sleepers, Judgement of Solomon, and God’s Justice Vindicated. So the question-mark is supererogatory. He concludes: “In the ‘Qur’an there are indeed ‘fables of the ancients’ placed there by divine decree, full of worldly wisdom to be favoured and savoured for generations to come.”

The investigations of Alan Dundes would have met with the approval of Edith Fowke and of everyone else who has any experience with the composition and characteristics of the lore of the people. Indeed, it is probably a demonstrable fact that elements of folklore may be found in all literary works of any great length, from Greek epic poems to those lengthy compositions of our own day. The Modern period witnessed the composition of some very lengthy works of a sub-literary and supra-literary nature, including James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” Arnold Toynbee’s “A Study of History,” Oswald Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” and G.I. Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales.” It would be rewarding to undertake a study of works like these from the perspective of folkloristics.

 Movements:  ( no date given)

 

 Movements: 1924

Try as I might, I cannot contrive the ideal segue from these two books, written by Dundes, to the third item, a recently issued one, that has no known author but which I now want to discuss. (Come to think of it, Edith Fowke would have enjoyed it as well!) For one thing, the new work is both a booklet and a compact disk. For another, it more a souvenir of a place and period in time than it is an analysis of a powerful text studded with oral formulas, story-motifs, and story-types. The “book” to be discussed is titled “Music of the Prieuré” and it is credited to “Gurdjieff / de Hartmann” with Rosemary Nott at the piano.

The publisher is Dolmen Meadow Editions of Toronto, and the editors of Dolmen Meadow are to be congratulated for having overseen the production of an attractive, sepia-coloured “package.” It consists of one slipcase, one CD (released with the permission of Adam Nott), and one 16-page booklet (not in sepia), the text of which appears in English, French, and Spanish. The text explains what the “package” is all about.

 Rosemary Nott

 

 Adam Nott

It is a tribute to Rosemary Nott and it is a tribute from Mrs. Nott, who has been described as Gurdjieff’s “first American student.” Born in Houston, Texas, she studied the Eurhythmics of Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in Hellerau in 1922 when she first met Gurdjieff. She was a pianist and dancer in her own right. At the Prieuré, under Gurdjieff’s direction, she taught Movements, and there she had Thomas de Hartmann to guide her piano technique. Thereafter she performed the compositions she knew so well for groups in centres on both sides of the Atlantic. She died at the age of eighty-two in 1979 in London, England. She is well-loved for her dedication to the work.

Mrs. Nott recorded the “music of the Prieuré” on reel-to-reel tapes on a monaural studio recorder in London in 1974-75, and performances were “selected, digitized, and prepared for publication” by the well-known conductor and pianist Charles Ketcham, who himself has arranged and played the complete Gurdjieff-de Hartmann piano music. Illustrations to the package come from the collection of Gert-Jan Blom of Amsterdam and Mrs. Nott’s son Adam Nott.

There are twenty compositions on the CD disk and some of them have intriguing names. I have in mind “Orthodox Hymn from Asia Minor,” “The Sacred Goose,” “Lost Loves,” and “The Pythia.” With only a few years of piano practice and theory behind me, I would be hard-pressed to comment knowingly on the performances of these compositions, some of which are lodged in memory, others of which are strangers to my ears. Yet I was struck by the intentionality of the playing. “The Fall of the Priestess” and “The Great Prayer” are instances of this. Some tracks convey the impression of the loneliness of the pianist; other tracks transmit the sense of the company of other musicians. All the compositions sound alive yet ancient, or ancient yet alive.

The words “music of the Prieuré” were well chosen for they constitute a neat conceit (in the literary sense of the word). The next best thing to haunting the halls of Le Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon is being overtaken by the airs, themes, and strains of Mrs. Nott’s piano.

 

John Robert Colombo is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the lore and literature of the country. His current books include “Fascinating Canada” (a book of questions and answers) and “Jeepers Creepers” (a collection of told-as-true ghost stories). He has also published three volumes devoted to the life, work, and writings of Denis Saurat (who also “met Gurdjieff” and is discussed in “Gurdjieff in the Public Eye”). Colombo’s website is < http://www.colombo.ca >.

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