Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Kenric Kite sings a poem by Newton Baker during a presentation of poems set to music Saturday at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier.
MONTPELIER — At the start of Saturday’s SummitSongs concert, poet Newton Baker had no idea what his poem “Living on Deerfield Drive,” a.k.a. “Damn Deer Blues,” was going to sound like in the hands of songwriter Kenric Kite.
“I don’t know, maybe it will be a bluegrass song,” he said. “I can kind of hear it that way.”
The transcendent marriage of music and lyric is the holy grail for any songwriter. But Saturday students, friends and faculty of the Summit School of Traditional Music and Culture shook things up a bit in tandem with PoemCity, Montpelier’s month-long downtown celebration of National Poetry Month.
As part of PoemCity’s series of events at the Kellogg-Hubbard Library, willing poets were given the opportunity to have their work set to music composed by students and faculty at the Montpelier school.
The musicians rose to their challenges with intriguing results. Saturday’s performance offered up a handful of hybrid songs that were surprising in their range of mood, and playful in their attempts to wrangle sometimes recalcitrant words into a melodic structure.
Along the way the audience was treated to more than a concert, but also an exploration and expiation on the nature of songwriting itself.
“You don’t always start with the same element,” explained songwriter David Fink. “Sometimes there is a melody that you have. At another time you might wake up to a lyric in your head. There are very few perfect songs. Joni Mitchell’s ‘A Case of You,’ that still makes me cry when I listen to it. That’s a perfect song.”
There was perfection at the SummitSongs concert in unlikely places. Ted Vogt’s evocative one-handed piano perfectly evoked the ebb and flow of water for “Boathouse in Autumn Rain,” one of several poems by Mary Elder Jacobson that were set to music.
One could almost smell the air and feel the trees bow in the breeze when Vogt’s music met the words: “A muted pulse of rain sounds the metal roof, so softly dispels the sleepy stillness.”
The later lines of the poem weren’t sung, but were spoken instead, sometimes against or before a simple line of music. If it didn’t resemble anything you would hear on Top 40 radio, it did something more. It illuminated the words in a way that lifted it off the page.
Afterward Vogt characterized the process as both “freeing and challenging. We’d been writing some different kinds of songs and it was freeing myself to write it.”
There was a jazzy guitar accompaniment by Colin McCaffrey, who teaches songwriting at the school, to another of Jacobson’s poems which evoked a speakeasy time.
And then, finally, it was time for Baker’s “Damn Deer Blues.”
Songsmith Kenric Kite strapped on a Fender hollow-body, and let loose with a rollicking tune that most Vermonters can relate to at this time of year.
“Bought a house on Deefield Drive
Quaint Vermont name where I reside
Didn’t think much about it — then
Went outside to rake my lawn
Found all of my crocus gone
Damn deer, been in my yard again.”
By the time Kenric made it to the last four lines he and Newton Baker had the audience in the palms of their hands.
“Sometimes I dream of deerskin gloves
And eating fresh cooked venison,
But ’cause I don’t own a gun
Damn deer are back in my yard again.”
Kenric said that it was challenging but that as soon as he read the poem he wanted to set it to music. He fudged in a few places, shifted a stanza or two, but in the end he was satisfied with the result.
“It’s more challenging to work with someone else’s words. I took some creative license without altering it. I thought about Tom Lehrer as I was writing it.”
As for Baker’s opinon: “I think it was just perfect,” he said. “And it was perfect timing. Last night I came home and the crocuses were all in bloom. This morning they were gone.”MORE IN Central Vermont
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