I was visiting The Pointman at his blog recently, when I picked up on an older post which I had previously passed over entitled, “William Johnson; echoes of an unimportant life”, not recognizing at the time the eponymous William Johnson as Blind Willie Johnson, the legendary Texas blues man, and one of the very rare human artists honored by having a recording of his music sent to the stars aboard the Voyager spacecraft in the 1970’s. Time to correct that.
The Pointman in his own inimitable way gives a pithy précis of William Johnson’s life, some of the significance of his musical legacy, with an added discourse on the history of the Voyager program, and how Gary Flandro invented the orbital mechanics that made ‘The Grand Tour’ of the solar system of the Voyager program possible. I highly recommend this post, you won’t get much of what follows if you don’t, and The Pointman in general.
What made this particular article stand out in my mind, and which opened a door to my particular [peculiar?] mind was this paragraph here.
But there’s a piece on it by another musician of interest though. It’s called “Dark was the night, cold was the ground” and it’s by William Johnson. It’s a curious piece of music. I first heard it when I was in a bad situation and was hurting. There was something eerie about it. It was as if I was listening in stillness to someone else who was there with me, but we were both somehow listening together. It isn’t quite blues or gospel but something else altogether; Ry Cooder called it the basis of all slide guitar and “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all American music”, which is a lot of responsibility for any one song to bear. The technical merits of the song I’ll leave to Ry, because he’s a knowledgeable and gifted guitarist, but I do know that it is important in terms of its impact on me and others I’ve spoken to.
It has been a long, long time since I have listened to ol’ Blind Willie, so I had to go have a relisten. You can have a listen here.
Naturally I have some thoughts on the subject.
Firstly, I’m always intrigued when someone, particularly someone like The Pointman who’s experience and intelligence I respect, says something like, “It defies categorization”, since the ‘category defying’ as an experience and as a phenomena is a primary interest of mine. When someone is willing to say this, it usually implies an intelligence at work that is alert to categories and is willing to recognize where conventional categories are failing.
I might suggest, however, that the particular effect The Pointman experienced in the moment of his extremis fits rather neatly within the category of ‘spiritual experience’; while the Blind Willie Johnson’s song “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground”, while completely transcending the art form of the ‘blues’, fits fair and square within category the of the negro spiritual [the blues being an offshoot of the negro spiritual anyway] and especially that subcategory called a ‘moan’. It’s not significant, however, that I managed to hang a category on either of the two situations where he didn’t, what is important is Pointman’s experience. I will add quickly, lest I be misunderstood, that the spiritual experience is a category defying experience, or rather the experience of being category defied [or category deified].
For Pointman the song “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” was the instigator for what I refer to as the ‘translinguistic ‘ experience, and which then became his vehicle for the spiritual experience. In Pointman’s case, his particular instance of personal hurting was able to connect to William Johnson’s accumulated lifetime of hurting, and there on to that more universal state of consciousness known as the ‘blues’, the translinguistic conductor of that state of consciousness was the music.
Question is, was there anything special about that particular recording that potentiated the process? I say yes, most definitely, in particular the non-use of standard language and instead the use of nonsense [non-sense] syllables in the musical form was the method which the artist used to achieve this particular effect.
The nonsense syllables sung in this particular song are what are referred to technically as ‘vocables’. There are two standard definitions for the term vocable. Among linguists the word vocable generally refers to a word or utterance in speech that has little or no semantic role or meaning. Musicologists, Ethnomusicologists in particular, also use the term vocable in a slightly more specific way, in that vocables are non-lexical words or nonsense syllables used for musical effect. For instance, the standard rock n’ roll: “na na na na, na na na na, hey hey hey…” is an example we are all probably familiar with, but those same syllables, and a host of others, turn up regularly in the sacred songs of peoples world wide – and for a reason other than for a vocalist to fill in the melody where lyrics are lacking.
For instance the sacred songs of the Lakota Sioux, [with which I have been deeply intimate], are chock full of vocables and some their most sacred songs consist entirely of vocables. In their way of understanding the Lakota believe the vocables to be the language of the spirits and consequently the most powerful part of the song; however, nobody knows what the ‘words’ of that spirit language means – an important point. I have a friend out there who received a vision as a young man which contained some of this spirit language and he has been agonizing about it ever since. This is all taken with great seriousness by The People, nonsense though it may be to our ears [and theirs].
The phenomenon of vocables in music is very similar to that of glossolalia or ‘speaking in tounges’ which is the practice of fluidly vocalizing [sometimes writing] non-sense syllables or words. This practice is now wildly popular within Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity and is often in this context considered to be part of a sacred [but unknown] language brought about in a state of religious ecstasy, [in the Greek sense of the word] or considered to be a signifier of religious ecstasy [you know ol’ Joe has really got the authentic whammy from God when he overcomes his educated, normal, white, middle-class, property owning, tax-paying set of set of inhibitions when he cuts loose and starts spouting ghibberish like that].- yes – there may be a number of motivating factors in the phenomenon other that the descent of the Holy Spirit it can be a status thing.
This phenomenon is similar to, or conflated with, xenoglossia, [the alleged], spontaneously speaking in a real foreign language, but one previously unkown to the speaker. Interestingly, even though the xenoglossia are [alleged] to be real words in a real language, they are effectively glossolalia to the speaker, in that they don’t know what they are saying – the spirit of the moment does not confer understanding apparently.
Of course anyone can speak in glossolalia, children do it all of the time, all it takes to have a suitably depressed sense of social inhibition and you can too, which is not to put the practice down, but to put it into context of being within the normal range of human linguistic activity. In fact Uncle Terrence, who like myself was keen on the category defying, and was wont to wax philosophical on the nature and significance of language, would often demonstrate the type of glossolalia that he would experience during the DMT tremendum to his audience, and on occasion could induce one of its less socially inhibited members to participate in a two way conversation in this manner – very entertaining.
An example of Terence Mckenna using glossolalia starting at about minute 4:00
For those that the term ‘DMT tremendum‘ sounds like ghibberish [and are interested], an explanation of the seven most astonishing minutes of your life:
Witnessing the transaction, or listening to a recording anyway, one is quite sure neither participant knows what the other is saying, and it is not at all clear that either one knows what he is trying to say to the other, yet it is also equally apparent that real communication is taking place – but outside of the semantic space of spoken language – communication has shifted entirely into the realm of emotional intent. As Uncle Terence says in the video above, “You discover meaning in the absence of context.” This is the significant point, that there is more to our facility for vocal communication than the rules of semantics of our language normally allows us, and that these non-semantic vocalizations are carriers of specific states of consciousness quite independent of semantics, this is why I call it the translinguistic experience.
Uncle Terrence also used to talk a great deal about visible language, and the neuropsychological synesthesia involved in that process, but that is a subject for another day.
Vocal communication in humans, seems to originate in the realm of emotional intent, this is normal development for babies and children, and there is very good reason to suppose that this style of vocalization preceded symbolic language in humans by hundreds of thousands or millions of years. As we are socialized into adulthood we tend to loose the facility with the process, but hopefully we learn some more sophisticated and artful processes: like poetry, like music, languages that are sufficient to transmit our adult emotional stature and complexity.
This is a key to understanding Pointman’s experience is that, the recording of “Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground” was experientially effective for him not because of the cleverness of its lyrics, but because there were no lyrics. The empathic connection between listener and artist-long-dead proceeds from the abjuration of semantics and leads to the direct experience of a universal state of consciousness – in this case the blues. The brain searching for patterns of meaning in the incoming sound flow shifts gears into a new mind-space – what that mind space IS is open to question – but if you have ever had it you will never forget it. There seems to be a kind of synesthesia operating here, the neuropsychological function of language interpretation starts crossing boundaries with the psychological function of meaning production – this is what puts the ‘trans’ in translinguistic. The result being the blurring of categories of self and other and ultimate which is the hallmark of the spiritual experience.
In a similar vein, one of my favorite musical forms to listen to is Vedic Kirtan music, at least the intercontinental, new age, cross-cultural version that exists now due to the cross-pollination of traditional Vedic culture with musicians with western lyrical sensibilities and instrumentation. Kirtan, briefly, exists [mostly] within Vedic devotional tradition, and consists of call and response chanting [responsory] of various Sanskrit mantras, – chanting the sacred name, over and over, sometimes for hours on end – to the accompaniment of a small group of musicians and lead by a kirtankar. It is the aim of Kirtan is to glorify Krishna [or whoever] and bring the participants closer alignment to the devas in question – or something like that – I don’t pay that much attention to the official story, I’m after the nugget of gold encoded in the middle of the song – the expansion of personal consciousness into the higher transpersonal domains.
The reason for this is, the same as for Pointman, because for me the music and practice of Kirtan is spiritually effective precisely because I do not know what the mantras are supposed to mean. People who carefully learn the Sanskrit and inform themselves of all the layers of meaning of the various mantras – wrap themselves up tightly in the whole cultural layer in other words – then have to forget all of that information in order for the practice to be experientially effective as a method for consciousness expansion, thus the hours and days of chanting necessary to overcome even the ordinary problems of shifting into higher, transpersonal levels of consciousness. In other words the meaning inhibits you from advancing. The collapsing of the vocables into language, leads to an interesting, but unfortunate phenomenon, it stops being experientally effective.
It is of course possible to simply regress back into the mytho-magical levels of consciousness, or just stay stuck there if that is where you happen to start – very common – which is why on a broader social scale a practice can turn into a kind of ‘orgy porgy’ [in the Huxlarian sense of the word] ritual that succeeds only in making people feel happy about themselves and their in-group without any real spiritual progress being made by individuals or the group as a whole – a common situation in all religions and religious communities unfortunately.
So, this is the spiritual challenge of mankind, to actually and effectively expand ordinary states of the personal consciousness into the higher and more refined transpersonal states of consciousness – the proper proper method for understanding these states of consciousness is Art and the proper tool for its manipulation and control is ritual and magic.