Allen Ginsberg: The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience

Jeff Tamarkin on September 7, 2017

Allen Ginsberg was one of the most influential and controversial poets of the 20th century, but he wasn’t a singer. Nonetheless, Ginsberg didn’t let any dearth of skills curb his revelry: He quite often vocalized, whether chanting or setting poetry to music, performing at various times with the likes of The Clash and Bob Dylan. Among his best-known musical endeavors was this 1970 album, billed as being “by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg.” On the original MGM release, Ginsberg took the poetry of Blake (1757-1827), originally published in 1789 (“Innocence”) and 1794 (“Experience”), and placed the works within a variety of contemporary musical settings. Ginsberg provided the primary vocals and, occasionally, accompanied himself on the harmonium. He was also joined by fellow poet (and life partner) Peter Orlovsky as well as several accompanists—including jazz musicians Bob Dorough, Don Cherry and, on the final track, “The Grey Monk,” drummer Elvin Jones. This first-time CD and digital release expands on the original by adding a bonus take of “The Grey Monk” and an entire second disc’s worth of more Blake songs—several of them first issued on a Ginsberg boxed set, and the others previously unissued—as well as a few mantras. So, is it good music? It’s fascinating, to be sure—you’ve definitely heard worse attempts at marrying poetry to song—and, at its best, Ginsberg’s intonations and somewhat droning delivery are captivating, impassioned and often haunting. While most of the tunes are under two minutes, his ability to match Blake’s words to then-happening folk-rock/jazz-based forms was uncanny, and his grasp of their inherent rhythms and melodies was irrefutable.

Artist: Allen Ginsberg
Album: The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience
Label: Omnivore