Daniel Redman reminds me of Jonathan Silverman in the movie adaptation of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. He has the glasses, the slightly nasally voice, the boyish looks, the charm and, well, he’s Jewish. I do like me some Jewish boys.

When I heard someone had begun setting Leaves of Grass to music, music akin to a cappella chanting, I knew I wanted to hear it. I’m a musician, poet and die-hard lover of Whitman. Though I’ve heard a ton of Whitman musical settings over the years (he and Emily Dickinson are perhaps the two most frequently set poets by American composers), I had no idea what to expect. Also, I’d never heard anyone setting any of his work for solo, a cappella voice.

When I got to the San Francisco Public Library performance — a little late — the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center was packed. Daniel was already up and singing, eyes closed, hands clasped and body swaying — in the middle of the audience seated in a circle. The physical configuration of the event and the music coming from Daniel’s throat reminded me of shape-note singing — the Christian tradition of stridently sung hymns, marked by clarion harmonies, and, especially in Daniel’s case, chutzpah.

He’d memorized the entire first chapter.

This was no small feat considering that his compositions were virtuosic on so many levels. He sang long-breathed phrases spanning two octaves. There were crisp monosyllabic utterances mixed in with frequent melismatic phrases, that is, vowels assigned to be sung on many, many notes (it’s Jewish and Black gospel and Beyonce). The singing was tonally sophisticated (using various modes and key changes) and moved between tender reverence to outright democratic bombast. Sacred. Buddhist, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal. I’m not kidding.

Daniel’s an attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and wrote this music for our community, for us to preserve and celebrate who we are — and have been — throughout Papa Walt’s (and our) American diaspora.

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14 Responses to “In Every City and Town: Singing Whitman’s (and Our) America”

  1. Daniel Nathan Terry 19 May 2011 at 5:45 AM #

    Fascinating and powerful, Kevin. Such a different approach, as you mention, from composers like Barber. I love the sound–reminds me of the rambling trance/passion of my grandmother’s voice. She grew up in Appalachia and sang songs from the mountain–hymns and folksongs.

    A beautiful way wake this morning. Thanks!


  2. Bryan Borland 19 May 2011 at 7:55 AM #

    Thank you, Kevin, for bring Daniel Redman and this fascinating, inspiring project to our attention. I am sure that somewhere, Whitman is smiling.

  3. Joseph Ross 19 May 2011 at 8:24 AM #

    What an interesting project, Kevin. There’s something amazing about the way singing packs language with another kind of meaning and passion. This reminds me of the Irish language chants I’ve heard, some recorded by Sinead O’Connor and Sting. I think Whitman’s language gives itself to singing more than others because so many of his words are dominated by vowels. It’s rich.

  4. Khalil Sullivan 19 May 2011 at 11:34 AM #

    Let me first say, this is a wonderful review of Daniel Redman’s performance. I wish I could have been present to hear all the complexities of his music in a live setting. Nevertheless, the video captures the unique approach to “Leaves of Grass” and the humility with which Redman takes up all of these sacred traditions. Bravo!!

  5. Lisa Jones 19 May 2011 at 5:10 PM #

    Wonderful video and article. Thanks Kevin and Daniel.

  6. Regis Smith 19 May 2011 at 9:11 PM #

    Beautiful documentary. Excellent performance. Excellent cinematography. Can we see this in a film festival, please?

  7. Latasha Diggs 19 May 2011 at 10:01 PM #

    All I can say is wow. I watched the video and just kept thinking about he style and choice in phrasing. It’s very old. Very in the tradition of blue grass and hymns. there’s something also that touching on the sephardic and north african. it just made me think a lot. and then i said to myself, he’s singing whitman? thank you for sharing him with us.

  8. Jeffery Beam 20 May 2011 at 7:46 AM #

    Dear Kevin and Lambda,
    Thanks for posting this. And Daniel what a extraordinary project. Whitman has possessed you and I am personally grateful for your acceptance of such a possession. I look forward to purchasing a recording when it’s available. Bravo. Onward Comrade!

  9. A McCarthy 20 May 2011 at 1:27 PM #

    I am happy to see how much you personalize your reviews. I have been experimenting with writing literary and film criticism and I do the same thing. I’ll use your example as permission to keep doing so!

  10. Jericho Brown 20 May 2011 at 1:43 PM #

    I love the modulations and runs done in his lower register. As we used to say in the old church, “Sang!”

  11. jack hirschman 21 May 2011 at 2:37 AM #

    many thanks, kev—-the singing is great and your filming sensitive write-on
    fyi i regard the song of the open road as a the finest american
    poem ever written
    its last line is the last line of the mission statement of the revolutionary
    poets brigade whose second anthology will be asking for 2 of your
    most politically engaged poems


  12. Keetje Kuipers 21 May 2011 at 6:37 PM #

    Thank you so much for bringing this gorgeousness to our attention, Kevin!

  13. Alexandra Mattraw 22 May 2011 at 12:51 PM #


    Watching Daniel sing Whitman seems just as important as hearing him. This film clip captures him in the muse’s midst– full body possession. What an inspiring, informed review of what moves him. Thank you for sharing!

  14. Andrea Joy Barrett 23 May 2011 at 11:49 AM #

    I love this. Keep ’em coming.

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