Saturday, October 27, 2012

Patron Snakes

We are a bible nation. History, literature, politics for better and worse steeped in the good book. Amazing how white Europeans adopted a dark Palestinian, and brought him on over to the New World.

Blame it on the Greeks.

Just for the record: "wine dark sea," Homer, of course. "…and they shall take up serpents," Mark 16:18. Of which more later.

I learned about the sound of snakes breathing on NPR. An intrepid woman traveler woke to the sound in her ear.



Here's the sound
of a snake


no voice
just breath


Teeth and lips and breath
     try it

A serpent hangs from a branch
and strains toward Eve


she freezes at the sound
thought follows
the original is originated

and we
are cursed
until blood is shed for us

Or so the story goes.




white - what else,
pure of heart and miserable


over the wine dark

in mind if not heart,
and a dark skinned God


Hallowed be thy name

Black Snapper
Great Adder
Diamond Back

and they shall take up serpents

breath hiss and rattle.


John Billington

a catholic - a "stranger" - with his cross-hung god

came over with family
on the boat Mayflower
along with the "separatists,"
and their invisible deity.

John's son found the company's cache of powder
tried to blow the Mayflower out of the water
his solitary plot fizzled
but young Billington
never saw another
solitary moment.

A few years later:

John Billington the senior, hot tempered, shot John Newcomen - a new comer

          Shot him in the woods
          Shot him dead

It was the colony's first murder.

John Billington hanged for his crime

it was the colony's first hanging.

He was a "troublemaking murderer, a knave, and a scoundrel,"

or so said the Governor

"he was beloved of many,"

said his neighbor.


Eleanor Billington, John's sad, hot tempered wife

loudly and publicly slandered a neighbor

and was locked in the stocks
          and whipped.

Dorcas Billington,

age 22,

their hot blooded daughter,


was found out


and shamefully whipped.

Pity the poor Billingtons -

          breath hiss and rattle.


This is the Story of John Billington

John Billington and his family dear
Came over here on the Mayflower
During the voyage his fine young son
Tried to blow that boat to kingdom come.

John Billington in a white hot rage
Let bloody murder out of its cage
Shot Newcomen in the woods so drear
Was hanged for the crime and died in fear.

John Billington had a wife named El
With a mouth as rank as the pits of hell
She was locked in the stocks and whipped one morn
For fouling the air with contempt and scorn.

John Billington's daughter, aged twenty-two
Had no use for church or prayer or school
But would lift her skirt and play with the boys
And one day was whipped for her sordid joys.

Let's drink to the mem'ry of John Billington
His wife, and his daughter, and his fine young son
Let's drink to the town-folk righteous and pure
And drink to the ship that brought them here.

Here's the Troubadour's take on the Mayflower.
Bob Dylan's 115th Dream

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Church of the Blood

H. Rap Brown said, "Violence is as American as apple pie," and was immediately pilloried for speaking the truth.

You can't spend much time thinking about American history without wandering into a cemetery of sex, violence, religion, and money. Sometimes all under the same stone.

Murder ballads hit our shores in the mid-1700's. They almost always have to do with abduction, rape, murder, and retribution, but they also cover incest, suicide, infanticide, etc. Gangsta' rap has very little on these old, Scots-Irish ballads. A huge trove of them got lodged in the backwoods of Appalachia and were copied and catalogued by musicologist Francis Child.

I've wanted to try my hand at a murder ballad for some time. This started coming as I was driving up I-5. Soon as I got off I started scribbling it down at stoplights. Anyone wants to write the music, just let me know.

Song w/o Music 1


Preacher comes 'round the back door
Just to see what he can find
Thinks he might spot some sinner
Hanging wash up on the line

He's from the church of what you got
The church of what he can get
He's from the church of the blood of the dollar bill
And you're the prettiest thing he ever has met

She's there just like he wanted
Cotton dress all clingy and fine
She turns around, and when she smiles
He says, "Little lamb, you're mine."

Puts his big hand on her shoulder
Looks her straight  in the eye
Says follow me I know the way
To a love that'll never die

He's from the church of what you got
The church of what he can get
He's from the church of the blood of the dollar bill
And you're the prettiest thing he ever has met

He lays her down in the tall grass
By the tree up on the hill
Treats her rough and beats her up
And then he takes his fill

She struggles and it's a sad story
She dies in his hands that day
A cold wind comes down turns his head around
And he knows that he's gonna' pay

He's from the church of what you got
The church of what he can get
He's from the church of the blood of the dollar bill
And you're the prettiest thing he ever has met

The hunters found her body
They buried her where she lay
Was her grandpap's land and her tombstone stands
Right there to this very day

And the god damned preacher he hanged himself
From a branch on that same oak tree
They cut him down, put him in the ground
In a place far away from the scene

People say you can see his shadow
Fallin' 'cross the white of her stone
Others say it's a trick of the moonlight
But you better not go to that grave alone.

He's from the church of what you got
The church of what he can get
He's from the church of the blood of the dollar bill
And you're the prettiest thing he ever has met.


photo by ed snyder: the cemetery traveler

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Greetings and Stagger Lee

Over the past few years I've been practicing narrative poems. I've finished long pieces on Demeter and Persephone (This Drifting World,) the American southwest (The Multidimensional Adventures of Jesus, Coyote, and Crow, a.k.a. Los Viejos,) and the Christian nativity stories.

I've been wondering what's next, then Dylan's latest cd came out. It quotes from so many sources it would be a fool's game to try and name them all, but what Dylan always comes back to, and quotes the best is the deep world of Americana. What Griel Marcus has called, "that old, weird America."

And then the other day I was thinking about my Uncle Barney and how he taught us kids how to read the racing form, shoot pool, play rummy, and shoot craps. I got to thinking about what a fast action activity craps is - and then I got to thinking about Stagger Lee and Billy D'Lyon.

I also got to thinking that my next project would be a series of American poems, and this is the first one that came to me:


No game quick as craps
dollars down
dice tumble
points made
or not but
money gets grabbed.

Players best be
sober and sharp

that night
under a yellow-moon
street light

Billy D'Lyon was

Stagger Lee
was not

and when they were done
Billy adjourned to the bar room
with a hand full of greenbacks
and Stagger Lee's brand new Stetson hat.

Two things faster than craps -
crazy and bullets.

Stagger Lee calls, "Billy, yo…"

hands up palms out
says, "Oh no…"

smokeless .44

Stagger Lee shoots poor Billy down.

Billy clutches at air
against the high gloss bar
to the dirt black
scuffed black
heel gouged
bar room floor

neck on the rail

hat pushed off his head

eyes stare straight ahead
glassy and dead.

Stagger Lee drops his .44
retrieves his Stetson
dusts its brim
walks out those swinging doors
and steps right up, ladies and gents,
to the scaffold gallows
like it was church
on Sunday morning.

Stagger Lee
all snake-eyes
looks down at his boots
and as the hangman takes his hat
thinks -

ain't nothin' finer than a Stetson

ain't nothin' colder than this cold wind blowin'

Ain't nothin' slower
than this goddamn trap door...

(There are many versions of this song, here's the one I first heard as a high school kid.)