Though he's best known for his theatrical idiosyncracies, Allen Ginsberg, is the real thing: a great American poet possessing Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp." He's also been a crusader for healing Western culture's split between music and poetry.
Ginsberg's fellow beats celebrated bebop jazz while jazz figures Don Cherry, Alvin Jones and Bob Dorough played on Ginsberg's album of William Blake's poem-songs. Ginsberg performed in Bob Dylan's 1976 Rolling Thunder Revue and wrote the lyrics for "Ghetto Defendant" on the Clash's 1982 platinum album, "Combat Rock." At recent poetry readings, Ginsberg has more often sung than recited his verses. Now, his best poem-songs have been collected on a double album, "First Blues."
Ginsberg isn't much of a singer; his sense of pitch can charitably be called approximate. His sense of wordplay, however, is marvelous, as he crisscrosses themes of imperialism, addiction, Buddhism, homosexuality and more. He catalogues a wealth of detail with an onrushing tumble of chants and blues. Like performance artist Laurie Anderson, Ginsberg redeems this potential esoterica with an impish sense of humor.
Three of the album's songs are from 1971 sessions with Bob Dylan; 10 are from 1976 sessions produced by John Hammond Sr. for a Columbia album later blocked by corporate censors; 11 songs come from a 1981 session with Anderson's producer Roma Baran. Two virtuoso musicians -- jazz instrumentalist David Amram and bluegrass picker Jon Sholle -- play on all 24 selections and flesh out the poet's bare-bones music.
Selections range from the hilarious anticipation of a Caribbean air flight, "Vomit Express," to the touching elegy, "Father Death Blues." This is not pop music by any stretch of the definition but it's bohemia at its best. ON RECORD, ON STAGE THE ALBUM ALLEN GINSBERG -- First Blues (John Hammond W2X 37673). THE SHOW ALLEN GINSBERG, at the Folger Library Tuesday at 8.