Sweet Roaming: William Blake and the Fugs

Among the very first popular musical settings of Blake's music were those by The Fugs in the 1960s.

This article was originally posted following the sad news that Tuli Kupferberg, one of the founders of the sixties underground band The Fugs, died in Manhattan on Monday, July 12, 2010. The sadness of this was somewhat tempered by the fact that although he had suffered ill health for some time after two strokes in 2009, Kupferberg was 86 and had by all accounts lived a long and happy life with his wife, Sylvia Topp and three children.

The Fugs themselves formed in 1964, initially comprising Kupferberg, Ed Sanders and Ken Weaver before being joined later by Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber among others. I was first introduced to them nearly a decade and a half ago by a former work colleague who, upon learning my passion for Blake, was astonished (rightly so) that I had not heard their renditions of Blake's poems "Ah! Sunflower" and "How sweet I roam'd". While The Fugs had particularly captured the imagination of members of the sixties counter-culture with their satirical songs and happenings (as when they attempted to levitate the Pentagon), they also reformed in the 1980s and continued to perform in the USA and Europe over the following years.

Both Kupferberg and Sanders were poets in their own right, but also maintained an interest in many different forms of poetry. As well as Blake (who, I like to think, was the poet they considered their most significant precursor), they performed adaptations of Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach" and a later collaborator, Steve Taylor, had taught at Allen Ginsberg's Naropa Instituted.

"Ah! Sunflower", from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, was released on their First Album in 1965. This was a poem that had previously inspired Ginsberg to write "Sunflower Sutra", a Blakean-Buddhist piece that ranks as one of Ginsberg's best poems and clearly had an influence on the Fugs track. My favourite, however, remains "How Sweet I Roamed from Field to Field" from the same year. With more than a hint of country music, Blake's strange and sardonic pastoral hymn is transferred to the plains and prairies of the west:

How sweet I roam'd from field to field,
And tasted all the summer's pride
'Til the prince of love beheld
Who in the sunny beams did glide!...

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.
-from Poetical Sketches

One of the pleasures of listening to such songs was The Fugs's own ironic awareness of what the libertarianism invoked so frequently by hippies and yippies actually involved, that the prince of love as much desired to mock and sport with his children of the sixties counterculture.

In an interview with Jason Gross in 1997, Kupferberg remarked on the fact that before he joined The Fugs at the age of 42, his life was "trivial", a blur after dropping out of sociology grad school in Brooklyn. His life, influenced by politics and the Beats, was anything but trivial after 1964, and the love of poetry that brought him and Ed Sanders together continued throughout the long decades after:

Speech is music... Some languages are very musical. When you hear certain people read, it's almost music. Some people who do music, it's almost speech. It's a continuance.

This article was originally published on Zoamorphosis.com.