Born Irwin Allen Ginsberg, June 3, 1926, Newark, NJ (died April 5, 1997, in New York city); son of Louis and Naomi (Levy) Ginsberg. Education: attended Columbia University, New York, NY.
Allen Ginsberg was arguably the most influential poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He was, with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, one of the leading figures of the Beat Generation of American writers, which alone would have guaranteed his fame. His public activity extended far beyond the composition of verse, however. Ginsberg was an ardent spokesman and publicist for the radical new writing of the 1950s and 1960s; he was an outspoken political dissident, critical of the abuses of power by governments of all stripes; he was the co-founder and director of the Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado; he was an early and highly influential gay rights advocate. And one of the most controversial aspects of his career, in the eyes of critics and his fans, was Allen Ginsberg's music. Untrained in composition or performance, Ginsberg was nonetheless a highly enthusiastic singer who, in the face of doubt and criticism, persevered to produce a small body of work that was well received, if poorly distributed, and quickly out-of-print.
Ginsberg grew up entertaining dreams of a career as a lawyer or writer, but apparently without giving a thought to becoming a musician. He enjoyed a wide variety of music ranging from Beethoven and opera, to George Gershwin, to Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Like his close friend Jack Kerouac, he was a fan of jazz in the late 1940s and early fifties, and later recalled listening to Symphony Sid's all-night radio show of non-stop bebop stars like Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Lennie Tristano and Lester Young. It was in the middle 1950s when "Howl," a poem that captured the anger and discontent of his entire generation, made Ginsberg famous. He followed it up with other influential works, including poems like "America," "Sunflower Sutra," "Kaddish," and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" which were not overtly musical, but whose rhythms were based on Ginsberg's breath, much like the lines blown by a sax player. In 1954, traveling in Mexico, Ginsberg built his own set of log drums which he suspended from a tree and played. Bary Miles, in his biography Ginsberg, quotes one of Allen's letters of the time: "People come from miles around to hear my drumming. It really goes over big."
He discovered chanting as an aid to meditation in 1963, and chanted regularly from then on, both in private and at his public readings. In 1965 during one of Ginsberg's visits to Los Angeles, Phil Spector, who had produced hit singles for girl groups like the Ronnettes and the Crystals, offered not only to record an album of Ginsberg's chanting, but to make it a hit of it as well. The offer came at a time when Ginsberg was beginning to think seriously about the connections between popular music and poetry. Bob Dylan, a great admirer of Ginsberg's poetry, had proven time and again that one could write intelligent, even poetic song lyrics and still have hit records. The success of British invasion groups like the Beatles and Rolling Stones, only solidified Ginsberg's conviction that poetry could reach far more people through music and records than through traditional vehicles such as little magazines and books.
His first musical project involved setting some poems of William Blake to music. Ginsberg's interest in Blake went back as least as far as his student time at Columbia University. More significantly, though, Blake had been the center of a powerful, life-altering experience that Ginsberg had had in 1948. Depressed and aimless, Ginsberg was in his room reading Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, when a voice that he took to be Blake's began reciting two Blake poems, "The Sick Rose" and "The Little Girl Lost." Ginsberg experienced a deep, sudden insight into the eternal beauty of every detail of the world, "eternity in a grain of sand" as Blake had written in "The Tyger." The Blake vision set in motion, over the course of more than two decades, experiments by Ginsberg with drugs, religion, meditation, chanting and other forms of altered consciousness.
Ginsberg knew that Blake had sung these "songs" himself. No record of Blake's melodies survived, however, so Ginsberg set about writing his own, based on the sound of the words in the poems. He set "The Grey Monk" a Blake poem not included in the Songs to music in summer 1968. His plan to set more of Blake's work to music was given impetus when Paul McCartney asked Ginsberg to do something for the Beatles' new label, Apple Records. Ginsberg returned to his farm in upstate New York and, using an old pump organ, set about composing melodies for 19 Blake poems.
It was slow going. Ginsberg had no background or knowledge about composition, musical notation, or singing. "Ironically," wrote Michael Schumacher in his Ginsberg biography Dharma Lion, "his initial problem as a songwriter was not an inability to write melody, instead it was a lack of faith in his own capacity to write lyrics. The Blake poems provided him the lyrics and the confidence." Ginsberg's friend Barry Miles, who was witness to the recording of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, came to assist with the recording. They worked all of June and July of 1969 on the project, eventually settling on eleven settings for the album, including "Ah Sunflower!" and "The Sick Rose," the two poems that had figured in Ginsberg's 1948 Blake visions.
Later Ginsberg would connect the visions and the recording sessions: "The mantra chanting all through the '60s deepened my voice so it sank deeper and deeper into my body," he wrote for the set Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems And Songs (1949-1993). "In 'Nurse's Song' from the Blake record my voice finally settled into some approximation of the voice I heard in 1948 ... Sort of like experiencing what I would be like in the future." The album was released on MGM Records to favorable reviews, which encouraged Ginsberg to record another record's worth of material that was, unfortunately, never released.
In 1971, Bob Dylan heard Ginsberg improvising song lyrics at a reading. Impressed, he suggested recording together, which they did over two sessions in November of 1971 at the Record Plant in New York City. Ginsberg spent the first session getting comfortable with the setting and the musicians. The second session produced "CIA Dope Calypso" about covert government drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, "Going To San Diego" about Richard Nixon and the upcoming Republican National Convention, "Many Loves" about some of the men with whom he had had relationships, and "Whozat Jimmy Berman." Two takes of "September on Jessore Road," a song inspired by Ginsberg's experience of poverty in India, were also recorded. But much to his disappointment, neither track was usable. It didn't look like the other tracks would fare much better though. They went into a can and sat on a shelf for years before they were finally released.
In 1976, Ginsberg gave tapes of the 1971 sessions, along with a copy of his book First Blues, to John Hammond, the producer at Columbia who had discovered Leadbelly, Robert Johnson and scores of other brilliant musicians. Hammond liked what he heard and organized a session in June. The album they made included eight new songs along with three from the sessions with Dylan. Columbia executives were upset with Ginsberg's explicit references to homosexuality in some of the songs, however, and refused to release the record. The record, First Blues, would eventually be issued in 1983 on John Hammond's own label. Confusing Ginsberg's discography, Folkways released a completely different album in 1981 under the same title. That record was recorded by ethnomusicologist and eccentric, Harry Smith, in his room at New York's Chelsea Hotel in the mid-1970s.
Ginsberg's song writing tailed off in the 1980s, but he remained interested in the latest pop music trends. Attracted by their radical protest songs, Ginsberg visited the Clash backstage before one of their shows in New York in 1981. When they asked him to read a poem to the crowd, he offered instead to sing a song he had written with them. They spent ten minutes rehearsing then performed "Capitol Air," a song in which Ginsberg rejects both capitalism and communism. He was pleased at the enthusiastic response he got from the crowd. Six months later he visited the Clash again, this time in the studio, and was asked by Joe Strummer to look over and tighten up some of their new song lyrics. Ginsberg also provided the "voice of God" which appeared on the song "Ghetto Defendant" on the Clash album Combat Rock. Although he was not writing songs as much as he had earlier in his life and his recording had petty much stopped, Ginsberg never stopped singing, accompanied by his harmonium, at readings. He would also recruit local talent as back-up musicians when he traveled. The arrangement led to a recording of "Birdbrain" with the Denver band the Gluons, which was released in Colorado in the mid-1980s.
Despite his personal enthusiasm for music, Ginsberg had often gotten mixed reactions from audiences when he sang or chanted at readings. His voice was ordinary at best, and his harmonium provided just a simple background drone, not a true musical accompaniment. Preparing for his 1989 release The Lion For Real, Ginsberg asked friends, poets and musicians, how to approach the project. According to Michael Schumacher, vocalist Marianne Faithfull suggested "Maybe you shouldn't sing...." In response Ginsberg returned to a strength he had developed over the years, reading his poetry. Shorter works from all phases of his career are accompanied by musicians like Arto Lindsey, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, and G.E. Smith. Martha Bustin, writing in Rolling Stone, called The Lion For Real "an artful, affecting presentation of Ginsberg's work.... a virtual Ginsberg primer."
In the last years of his life, Ginsberg combined his reading with music on other recordings. He made "The Ballad of the Skeletons" with Philip Glass, Paul McCartney and Marc Ribot; the Kronos Quartet accompanied him on a reading of his landmark poem, "Howl." Ginsberg's recorded work was called "the most substantial offering of recorded works by any poet in history" by Schumacher. An enormous four-CD overview of it, entitled Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems And Songs, was released by Rhino Records in 1994.
by Gerald E. Brennan
Allen Ginsberg's Career
Began writing poetry as university student in the 1940s; experienced the voice of William Blake in a series of powerful visions, 1948; made first important impact his initial reading of "Howl" at the Six Gallery, October 13, 1955; "Kaddish" published, 1959; met Bob Dylan, 1963; began chanting to meditate as well as at his readings, 1963; set Blake's "The Grey Monk" to music, 1968; released Wm. Blake's Songs of Innocence & Experience, MGM Records, 1970; recorded group of songs with Bob Dylan, 1971; John Hammond recorded First Blues for Columbia Records but label refused to release it, 1976; Folkways released album of songs recorded by Harry Smith, 1981; performed on "Ghetto Defendant" on the Clash's Combat Rock, 1982; First Blues released on John Hammond Records, 1982; "Capitol Rock" single with Denver band The Gluons released in Rocky Mountain states, mid-1980s; Collected Poems published, 1984; released The Lion For Real, 1989; released Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems And Songs (box set), 1994.
Allen Ginsberg's Awards
National Book Award for Poetry, The Fall of America, 1974;Gold Medal, National Arts Club, 1979; member American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
- Selected discography
- Howl and Other Poems , Fantasy-Galaxy Records #7013, Berkeley, CA., 1959.
- Kaddish , Atlantic Verbum Series #4001, New York, NY., 1966.
- Wm. Blake's Songs of Innocence & Experience , MGM/Verse CTS 3083, 1970.
- First Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs , Folkway Records FSS 37560, 1981.
- First Blues , John Hammond Records W2X 37673, 1982.
- The Lion for Real , Great Jones/Island Records CCD6004, 1989.
- Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems And Songs , Rhino Records, 1994.
April 26, 2005: The first known recording of Ginsberg reading "Howl," made in 1956, was donated to Colorado's Naropa University by Pacifica Radio. Source: Associated Press, http://hosted.ap.org, April 26, 2005.
- Miles, Barry, Ginsberg: A Biography. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1989.
- Schumacher, Michael. Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992.
- Billboard, July 2,1994; October 26, 1996.
- Rolling Stone, March 8, 1990.
- Additional material provided by Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale.