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This Friday, The Allen Ginsberg Estate and Origin Magazine are joining forces to throw a party in Ginsberg’s honor at the elegant Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. If Ginsberg in the Galleries turns out to be even half as fabulous as I expect it to, they’ll have done the legendary gay Beat poet proud.
The occasion? The digital re-release of Ginsberg’s Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems & Songs—the four-disc, music-and-spoken-word patchwork opus that Ginsberg worked on with a myriad of collaborators including Bob Dylan, David Amram, the Clash, and producing wizard Hal Willner. Featuring readings of some of Ginsberg’s most celebrated poems–like “Sunflower Sutra” and “Kaddish”–as well as a number of lesser known gems and innovative musical pairings, the collection chronicles four different periods in the poet’s life and work: Moloch!, Caw! Caw!, Ah!, and Ashes & Blues.
First packaged as a boxset in 1994 on the now-defunct Rhino Records, Holy Soul Jelly Roll will now be digitally available for the first time in all its strange and excessive glory. Throughout September the newly formed Ginsberg Recordings, created to preserve Ginsberg’s audio recordings for posterity, has been releasing each volume in reverse order–with Moloch!, the first volume in the set, to drop on September 25. The digital releases are accompanied by the original liner notes, beautifully redesigned to incorporate a number of old photos of Ginsberg from the archives.
As is often the case with poets whose personalities are an important presence in their work, hearing Ginsberg read his own poems aloud, just as he intended them, is incredibly affecting. Likewise, his dense, longer-form poems lend themselves well to the oral tradition. Listening to poems like “Howl” and “Kaddish” read live, before their canonization into American literature, is an exhilarating experience; the recordings are tense with energy. Ginsberg also has a pleasant singing voice–of an untrained type, certainly, though he has an easier time carrying a tune than Bob Dylan. My favorite sung moments in the collection tend to be Ginsberg’s slower, stripped-down songs, like “The Fly” and “Prayer Blues,” which recall the work of contemporaries like Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and on which he often accompanies himself on the harmonium.
But there’s incredible range here–from early lo-fi home recordings of poems to later spoken word pieces more reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, backed by full choruses and electric bands. Whichever of Ginsberg’s stylistic experimentations you enjoy most, you’ll find plenty in Holy Soul Jelly Roll–with over fifty tracks totaling five hours in its four volumes. I recommend devoting a whole afternoon (and a few jazz cigarettes, if you’re so inclined) to listen to the collection in its entirety.
For a chance to win a free download of Holy Soul Jelly Roll, enjoy the Rubin Museum’s stunning Himalayan art, and hear poets Bob Rosenthal, Eliot Katz, Sharon Mesmer, Anne Waldman, Alex Dimitrov, Steven Taylor, and Eileen Myles read Ginsberg’s poems alongside their own work, don’t miss Ginsberg in the Galleries at the Rubin Museum of Art this Friday, September 21, at 6pm.
Visit iTunes to buy the first three volumes of Holy Soul Jelly Roll.
Photo from the album booklet, courtesy of the Allen Ginsberg collection.