The last “Songs I Love” post was Cyril Tawney’s “Grey Funnel Line” a song about a seaman’s changing relationship with the sea. This reminded me of another piece of music (rather than a song) that I love John Fahey’s “The Yellow Princess”. It is (sort of) about a sailing ship – the Yellow Princess. As with all things Fahey the truth is probably more oblique and likely stranger than that. See his liner notes about the tune below the video.
John Fahey was an interesting character- read his Wikipedia entry to see exactly how interesting. He was an amazing fingerstyle guitarist and even today fifteen years after his death he is cited as an influence by a phenomenal number of guitar players.
The Yellow Princess:
I once managed to copy the main theme of a passage from “The Yellow Princess Overture,” by Camille Saint-Saens. This is a stabilized improvisation upon that passage. I began it in 1954 and completed it in December 1966, in Bastrop, La.
The Yellow Princess was a magnificent Clipper ship with golden sails, ivory prow, jade hull and jeweled mast-head; a vessel I saw setting sail at Orkney Springs, Virginia, in 1953. She was headed East and so was I. I was offered passage but took the dry-land route. Last I saw her (June, 1956) she was dry-docked on some tributary of the Anacostia. Having no appropriate wares for commerce upon the high seas I left her there. But such a well made ship! She still sails the Atlantic, I have recently been informed, prosperously laden with valuable cargo, having been quite productive all these years. She was last sighted by R. Grubbert Gardner, late 1966, in the thriving seaport of Lanham, Maryland.
The composition is played in standard tuning, and modulates between the keys of G and E major. The song thus transports itself through the Ionian and Mixolydian modes, and through this and other devices, motion suggests itself. While the motion continues the modulation is quickly executed (one should never be modally indeterminate) and the first mode hitchhikes along the road East (Md 410) to the Atlantic Ocean where it waits to see the sunrise and watch the ships go by. But the morning is cloudy. It gets depressed and collapses in the sand. Gulls and crabs are probably still there. The other drives West to the Pacific where it is caught and trapped by the sunset. Soon nightfall will come.
I did not go East. I took the wrong passage. Still, I thought, maybe I had gotten somewhere. Maybe I did. Who knows? But I am reminded of a quotation from Whitman which seems appropriate:
. . .where is what I started for so long ago?
And why is it yet unfound?
I know the answer to this question. The Yellow Princess still sails majestically out in the Atlantic, her golden sails billowing gently in the clean easterlies. I sit on the shore of the Pacific (Facing West I watch the sunset and try to think up new modes. I do not watch the ships go by. Those golden sails are on the Atlantic.) and will not venture upon that bay.
The Yellow Princess is not a canal ship. She cannot go around the Southern continent, much less circumnavigate the globe, any more than we can travel back through time. She is under a long contract to the John H. Meyer shipping firm in Lanham.
And contracts are contracts. I know that the shipbuilder made her for the Atlantic. I knew him a little. I played cards with him a few times-for money. He made her to sail in the clear water, and the Atlantic is still clean I hear. I swam in it when I was young. It is a better ocean. But no one told me this (I should have known) and now it is too late. There is no craft available in the whole Pacific Ocean on which I can find that kind of passage.
But then too the Pacific is not stagnant. And, when I stop to think about it, neither am I. Perhaps the answer to Whitman’s question is “right around the corner.”
One must choose his modes of transport and his oceans with care. He must choose between the present and the past. And then if he wants to gamble he must choose between the past and the future. The whole thing is very confusing. But I hear that out there where I live, hidden by the Venice seawall, an occasional sea-turtle comes up the cold current to see if things have changed. Some of these turtles are indigenous only to the Pacific. I want to see them and hear their voices. But I have trouble for whenever I try to listen, the rumbling voice of the land-locked turtle comes to haunt me. Sometimes it is loud, sometimes very faint. Perhaps there will come a time when I will not hear him anymore. Perhaps the saw-mill turtle is already dead and when I think I hear him it is merely imagination. But I cannot write a requiem for him until I am certain that he is dead. Recent events indicate that he may well be dead. But that’s another record. Story of my life.