New Songs for Mr Blake

Musician and songwriter Mick Stannard is 69 years old and has, in his words, “been doing music most of that time, in bands and solo”. Ever since an operation meant singing was no longer possible, he’s been recording instrumental albums, but when he recently came across his forgotten copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience Mick wanted to set some of these poems to music — and asked Kate, his daughter, if she’d like to sing them. Their album, Visions of William Blake, was released earlier this year, and Mick and Kate Stannard now share their experience of working with Mr Blake.


Mick:

I think William Blake has been in my DNA for quite a long time. It feels as if Jerusalem has always been there. And of course it’s the same with The Tyger. Mind you, I’m only a beginner and don’t really know much about his ideas. My first musical influences were Vaughan Williams and traditional English folk; people like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. Finding out that artists like The Doors and Nick Drake were quoting him in their songs is probably what drew me to him. To be honest I never knew he was that big in ‘popular culture’.

I go mainly by instinct and to be honest I’ve taken a few liberties with the text of his poems (adding some words of my own and taking some of his out) so I’m not sure if a purist would necessarily approve!

Encounters with Blake

As far as Blake himself is concerned, I’m no expert or indeed scholar. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of his watercolours and it was like a kind of worship. The place was dark and each work shone out from its case like a little jewel. The detail in his paintings fascinated me. It was fantastic. That’s where I picked up Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This in turn (about thirty years later!) led me to the idea of setting these poems to music.

I guess it was pure chance. Kate and I had just finished an album, Welcome to Our World, and I was thinking about what to do next. I was looking in our bookcase for something (I can’t remember what it was) and just happened to come across the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bingo! The more I delved into it, certain poems leapt out at me from the pages and I could hear the music straight away. With Visions of William Blake, it all seemed to make perfect sense. 

Visions of William Blake, by Mick and Kate Stannard

To take one example, I was amazed at how prescient the words to Holy Thursday are, speaking of poor folk living “in a rich and fruitful land”. I almost re-named our track Holy Food Bank Thursday. It seems that nothing much had changed since Blake’s day! Also I found the words to Earth’s Answer particularly powerful and The Lamb appealed to my sense of pastoral England. That’s where I tried to write music in the style of my hero, Vaughan Williams. Lots of strings, a harp and an oboe. Always an oboe for bucolic stuff!

A creative process

I don’t normally talk much about the creative process but I’ll have a bash. I’m basically a songwriter (of sorts) and love the challenge of writing lyrics and fitting them to music. Obviously with the ‘lyrics’ already taken care of by Mr Blake the process was a bit easier but no less of a challenge. I wasn’t aware which of his poems are well known and which others less so, and I think I chose the ones to have a go at by some kind of instinct — and of course those which appealed to me emotionally. They also had to scan pretty well and have a rhythm I could work with.

I’ve been listening to music for a long time and my influences are very diverse, stretching from traditional English folk to 60’s psychedelia, punk, new wave, classical, thrash metal and avant garde. So I guess my selection was in part dictated by my broad musical taste, which allowed me to devise a particular setting for each poem. Earth’s Answer for instance is very much influenced by Pink Floyd, whilst The Echoing Green is (hopefully) pure Vaughan Williams and strange to say, some of the music in The Door of Death now reminds me (in retrospect) of the last scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey … Where the hell did THAT come from?

Messing around with the texts may seem a bit sacrilegious but it was the only way I could make the finished songs work to my satisfaction. It was simply a case of composing the music and making the words fit even if I had to add or subtract some. I hope William wouldn’t have minded! The Garden of Love wasn’t long enough so I added quite a lot of extra lines, and in The Lamb I took Blake’s lead when he says in Auguries of Innocence “the lamb misused breeds public strife and yet forgives the butcher’s knife”, and wrote an additional verse with that in mind.

In Holy Thursday I saw a direct parallel between the times Blake talks about and today’s austerity Britain so I wrote a final verse about homelessness. I couldn’t possibly have done a different melody for Jerusalem as it already has the best ever tune so I just put in a bit of Brexit chaos at the end to reflect what’s currently happening in our green and pleasant land!

So, many reasons for changing the texts, I guess, and I think it occurred to me as I was going through the poems, kind of spontaneously. The process of making words and music fit is indeed pretty mysterious. That’s why when you hit on something special, it’s really exciting. I’ve no idea where it comes from. A higher place?

Kate:

Dad has always been interested in poetry, so I’ve been aware of William Blake among others for some time. Dad even used to write silly poems for me when I was young to make me laugh, and has always been creative. However I wasn’t very familiar with William Blake’s poetry before we started the album, and I didn’t know about his artwork either! But it’s been a really interesting project to work on together, and fun exploring both the light-hearted and the more sinister.

The poems and songs are all so different. I feel like I take on a different persona for each song on Visions of William Blake, and in a way sing as a different person. I think of them in a very separate way.

Usually we sit down and Dad gives me the poem to read through. I try to visualise and interpret the words quietly on my own, and then Dad plays me the music he’s recorded so far in headphones. Whilst the music is playing, I carry on visualising scenes or images and think about the words and then we go from there. We talk about what kind of tone of voice will work. For example, on Earth’s Answer the inspiration for my reading of the words was Gandalf from Lord of the Rings!

For me, with A Poison Tree it’s the storytelling of the poem. The scene I picture by the end of the poem is both chilling and beautiful, and it’s interesting (to me anyway) how peaceful it is, despite the hatred.

Visions of William Blake for the 21st century

I’ve been surprised at how many people my age and younger know of Blake, and have relatives who have studied his work or have a real interest.

I found it very interesting on first looking at Finding Blake to discover that the website and its users want to ‘re-imagine William Blake for the 21st century’. This very much articulated to me what I felt like we had also been doing with the album, whilst unaware at first of the Finding Blake site. By putting Blake’s words to music in 2019, and particularly for myself as someone who didn’t know very much about him before, I felt like I was in a sense ‘finding’ Blake.

To me, some of his poems are still very relevant now in 2019. For instance, like Dad has mentioned, the ideas behind Holy Thursday are still an issue now and it very much feels like nothing has changed in all these years. That poem could have been written in the 21st century.

Mick:

Blake seems to have had a larger influence on people’s general way of thinking than I had ever imagined. I think this new Extinction Rebellion movement which is currently growing is something that Blake would have enthusiastically espoused. Also, areas of mysticism and spirituality, something I had never considered.


Notes

Mick Stannard and his daughter Kate have been recording music together for about a year. Mick has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and has many influences ranging from The Velvet Underground to Vaughan Williams. He has recorded ten solo albums and three with Kate, Visions of William Blake being one. Kate has a degree in photography and is currently working for a cancer charity in London. She also designed the cover art for all the albums.

Kate and Mick Stannard

Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard features twelve of William Blake’s poems: The Garden of Love; A Poison Tree; Auguries of Innocence; The Tiger; The Echoing Green; The Sick Rose; The Lamb; Earth’s Answer; Holy Thursday; The Door of Death; The Angel; Jerusalem. It’s available on Spotify, where you can also find their previous albums, and also available at Amazon as a download. You can buy the CD of Visions of William Blake direct from Mick: email him at mstannm[at]ntlworld[dot]com for details.

You can also discover another version of A Poison Tree in A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song, Joseph Andrew Thompson’s post about Astralingua’s own adaptation of Blake’s poems. And Strange Mystery Flower from Roger Arias describes his own Blakean musical adaptation.

A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song

Joseph A. ThompsonWe welcome Joseph Andrew Thompson as our latest author for Finding Blake. Joseph is a composer, musician, writer and the creative mind behind the duo Astralingua. Their forthcoming album, Safe Passage, features their adaptation of William Blake’s poem A Poison Tree. This song is released today and Finding Blake is delighted to publish this account of its development to mark its release. 


William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience immediately enthralled me upon first read. A high school friend had lent me his worn copy, and I read, amazed by its elegant simplicity. It presented itself like a children’s storybook, complete with illustrations, perfect rhyme, and steady meter. Yet, beneath this playful facade was a masterwork, rife with meaning, craft, metaphor, and vision.

When I learned of the existence of other editions, I ventured to the bookstore to pore through any I might find. I would have been very delighted at purchasing my own illustrated copy, but with only a pittance to spare that day, settled instead on a text-only pocket version by Penguin that I found amidst the larger hardcovers.

Astralingua - Blake & Guitar
Astralingua – Blake & Guitar. Photo: Astralingua © 2018

Discovering A Poison Tree

The little songbook easily fit in my coat pocket and for the first six months of possessing it, I carried it around with me, reading it in quiet moments. It was still with me in college, when on many an evening, a fellow songwriter and I stood in my humble apartment, passing it back and forth, reading aloud the poems in different voices. Always a favorite, A Poison Tree was memorized, and often read in a voice not unlike Montresor’s, from Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado. In time, the book eventually made its way to a pocket of my carry bag, where still to this day it stays, like a most trusted talisman.

One evening a few years ago, while working on my band Astralingua’s coming album Safe Passage, my music partner Anne R. Thompson and I were at once struck by the idea of adapting one of Blake’s songs to music. Needing no deliberation, the obvious choice was A Poison Tree, as few among my friends had not at one time or another heard me slyly recite it. Excited by the idea, I retrieved my shoulder bag and found my little copy of Songs of Innocence and Experience.

As I flipped through the pages, I thought back to my college days with the book, and suddenly recalled an old song on which I had worked then. Absorbed in Romanticism, I had been writing in a Blakean mood of sorts, but dissatisfied with my lyrics, had since left the song unfinished. Now, I wondered if it might in some way fit A Poison Tree. Almost magically, with but a few changes to the original melody, it did so seamlessly, leaving me to wonder if this marriage of the two had not always been my true intent.

Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua.
Cover Art for A Poison Tree, by Astralingua. Design: Astralingua © 2018

In the midst of Safe Passage

And thus our version was born and grew. That night, Anne and I giddily sang it together, myself on guitar, and her reading from my pocketbook, harmonizing the melody. In production, we tried to give it an Old World minstrel sound, to place it closer to Blake’s era. With the voice and melody, I sought to convey the revelling dark glee with which, in my imagination, I always hear it read. During the sequencing, the song was placed in the middle of the album, at a darker part of its narrative.

Safe Passage is a discussion on mortality, isolation, struggle, and the movement between worlds. A Poison Tree, with its dual realities — that of the narrator and that of his unsuspecting foe — fits right in with the other tracks. Rich in possible interpretations, it helps press further the album’s central questions: How, if at all, can safe passage be attained? Who or what provides it? Who denies it?

Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson
Astralingua: Composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. Photo: Lisa Siciliano © 2018

I hope our adaptation brings the listener just as much joy in hearing it as I got from creating it, and more so, brings a smile to the face of a great poet in the sky.

You can hear A Poison Tree from today via our bandcamp link here: 

Additional:

And you can now also enjoy this video presentation of Astralingua’s A Poison Tree — words and images by William Blake. 


Notes

Astralingua are composer Joseph Andrew Thompson and backup vocalist Anne Rose Thompson. The nomadic space-folk duo explores life’s unknowns, blending haunting vocal harmonies, radiant strings, and otherworldly soundscapes into crafted songs that fall somewhere between classical, folk and psychedelia. You can discover more of their work at astralingua.com and at bandcamp.  

Their album Safe Passage is available for pre-order now, and will be released in early March 2019:

You can find Blake’s poem A Poison Tree at Poetry Foundation and there is a short analysis of “one of English literature’s most striking explorations of the corrupting effects of anger … one of William Blake’s miniature masterpieces” at interestingliterature.com. And don’t forget that there’s more to explore in the Blakean Articles and Other Blakean Artefacts pages in A Blakean Archive!

 

Blakefest 2018

With Bognor Regis gearing up for its annual Blake-inspired arts festival tomorrow, Blakefest director Rachel Searle shares just a few of the highlights. Blakefest has become a unique cultural experience by the sea, featuring international art, poetry, political discussion panels. As Rachel says, "in all honesty, it's very pleasingly different and eclectic in its approach, and perfectly mirrors the creative magpie approach, showcasing the whole spectrum of art forms."

The presence of William Blake as a resident in my hometown of Felpham has always been a catalyst for me wanting to create a cultural legacy in Bognor, that both honours him but also celebrates new art and contemporary visionary artists, as well as bringing in artists that embrace his rebel spirit and political resistance. We are really excited by the acts we’ve managed to secure this year and the breadth of the programming.

BlakeFest, part of the Big Blake Project, has its roots in Blake’s vision of Beulah, perhaps best understood as a window on earth into heaven itself: In Felpham, Blake penned “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates” and the words to Jerusalem. In the “spirit of Blake’s poetic genius”, BlakeFest is a synthesis of original music, poetry and audio-visual art and includes talks on issues of ‘the imagination’ and social justice. Our over-riding aim for BlakeFest is to be an agent of regeneration in Bognor Regis through the exploration and celebration of William Blake.

Before the main programme

While the main programme starts tomorrow, there is a question-time style panel debate tonight. Building Jerusalem is a public meeting, being held as part of BlakeFest 2018 at Chichester University, involving talks and a panel discussion exploring the relevance of William Blake’s poem/hymn Jerusalem, and wider philosophy, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Britain’s potential role in finding a solution to it. The event is an inter-faith and truth-seeking initiative and there will be no promotion of ideological or religious views that favour one faction of humanity over others. 

Building Jerusalem was inspired by the community poem – ‘We’ll Do It’ – crafted by Stella Bahin during her time as BlakeFest’s Poet-in-Residence. For me,’We’ll Do It’ reveals the heartbeat of Blake’s Jerusalem in the people of Bognor Regis today. With Blake’s own visions of both Beulah and Jerusalem, the idea of an inclusive inter-faith panel discussion emerged. This was followed by a sobering trip to Jerusalem and the West Bank. The highlight of the trip was meeting Dareen Tatour who used her precious last hours of freedom to give us a tour of her beloved Nazereth.”

Blakefest: music, poetry and talks

Our daytime programme starts at midday on Saturday with local and national talent. And the South Downs Poetry Festival has converged with Blakefest this year, curated by local bard Barry Smith — placing jazz and poetry alongside each other, weaving in and out of the musical acts throughout the day.

In keeping with Blake’s anti-establishment spirit of personal freedom, the acclaimed 1970s pop icon Lene Lovich headlines in the evening, with second headliner the All Things Must Pass Orchestra; led by Alex Eberhart, this is a celebration of the music of visionary Beatle, George Harrison. 

Mikey B Georgeson has been a major mover and shaker with BlakeFest, in capacities ranging from musician, exhibition curator, speaker and generally inspiring those around him. This year, he brings his Silent Disco, an art installation called An Actual Occasion and then performing as Mr Solo: an eclectic range of original, very individual, material taking inspiration from Bowie, the Beatles and Blake. A riveting and highly eloquent performer, this promises to be another highlight of BlakeFest 2018.

Vincent Gray will be unveiling and available to discuss an exciting possible sculpture for Bognor Regis, Albion Rose. Vincent recently completed a Keats sculpture now permanently installed in Eastgate Square, in Chichester.

The evening event at the Alexandra Theatre is being opened by a talk on Blake and the 60s by the accessible and scholarly Tobias Churton. The internationally-recognised and respected Churton, a very erudite orator, will be shedding light on Blake’s enduring contribution to our culture, focusing on the resurgence of his popular influence through the 1960s which still resonates across the arts, philosophically and spiritually.

Jamie Leeming will headline an afternoon set of live music sessions. He’ll also be accompanying the Southdown Festival Poets, culminating in Sasha Dugdale’s vocalising of Catherine Blake. Joy: Poetry & Jazz features Sasha Dugdale, Niall McDevitt, Naomi Foyle, Barry Smith and Jamie. The genre-crossing compositions of Jamie Leeming — with strong roots in the jazz tradition, but with folk-influenced imagery and textures  — meet the Blake-inspired words of South Downs poets!

Ciaran O’Driscoll and Margaret Farrelly with John Davies (aka Shedman) can be trusted to bring their lyrical Celtic music and humour to the afternoon. Probably the biggest contemporary name in Irish literature, Ciaran has won several awards and formally recognised by the Irish Arts Council as making an outstanding contribution to art and literature.

Alongside the wonderful musical lineup, free Silent Disco and performance poetry, there will be a graffiti art exhibition and bitesize talks on: Graffiti, Ginsberg and Blake; Blake and the Divided Brain; Female Revolutionary Figures

There is also an event in William and Catherine Blakes’ Cottage on Sunday and a guided walk.

Bognor Regis is a town poised at the brink of regeneration following similar projects in Margate, Hastings and Liverpool, with proposals including a major ‘William Blake Theatre’ — channelling local culture and arts to enrich their current heritage and touristic allure.


Notes

BlakeFest 2018 is taking place over the weekend 14th-16th September with the main focus being the all-day Live Music Festival on Saturday 15th at The Regis Centre/Alexandra Theatre from noon onwards. The Fringe Events on Friday and Sunday have limited numbers and payable separately.

The event is sponsored by Chichester University & Chichester Observer

You can find more information and booking details at the Blakefest website. This video shows events from last year’s festival.