We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Chris Mason is used to people hating his music. As half of the satirical antifolk duo the Tinklers, the 52-year-old Baltimore resident has composed music on homemade rubber-band guitars, written lyrics about “burpin’ fungus people with flashlight heads,” and tested listeners’ patience with songs lasting all of 22 seconds. Back in the early ’90s, when Tinklers ditties were often used to bookend segments of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Mason discovered just how hostile folks could be about his art.
“People would call in and say, ‘The Tinklers are the worst band in the universe,’” he recalls. “‘On a scale of 1 to 10, they are a negative 15.’”
That group, which hasn’t released an album since 1999, is currently “on sabbatical.” And these days Mason is more interested in traditional folk music and real poetry than the tongue-in-cheek stuff. But that doesn’t mean he’s made himself any more appealing to the NPR crowd. For one thing, the music is getting made with a guy from a band whose most recently released disc was quite unironically titled Loud & Horrible.
For another, the poetry is all written between 700 and 400 B.C.
“This is how I’m filling the songwriting void,” Mason says. “By borrowing words from these dead Greek people.”
Mason’s living collaborator is Mark Jickling, a longtime Washingtonian whose main claim to fame is his membership in Half Japanese, a screechy, sludgy local punk band fronted by primitivist icon Jad Fair. The dead ones include such nonhousehold names as Mimnermus, Stesichorus, and Xenophanes, although Mason has found a particularly rich mine in the work of classical writer Hipponax, who was banished from Ephesus in 540 B.C. for insulting its tyrannical rulers and lived the rest of his life in poverty.
Many consider the poet the grandfather of parody, and the remaining fragments of his work are a mixture of crude language—he’s said to have made liberal use of the ancient-Greek equivalent of “motherfucker”—and an innovative “limping iambic” rhythm. One of Mason and Jickling’s translations, which the pair set to an unaffected, vaguely Appalachian guitar line, goes like this:
He urinated blood and he defecated bile
The teeth in my mouth are all
I wander, I am afraid
“Hipponax [was]…this poet of the streets and of the vulgar side of life, the dirty side of life, but he’s also very learned,” says Mason.
Jickling also finds beauty in such frankness. “There’s not a lot of decoration or ornamentation in the lyrics,” he says. “They just say what they want to say, with really simple language, and they say it in such a way that surprises you—it grabs you.”
Plus, there’s a practical side: “I went through a period as sort of a reaction against rock ’n’ roll,” says Jickling, who’s been playing for years in an Irish-folk band with co-workers from the Library of Congress, where he’s employed as an economist. “Basically…I was tired of carrying amplifiers. Also, the really, really loud stuff doesn’t appeal to me anymore, because it’s really done some damage to my hearing.”
Jickling and Mason first met in the early ’80s, when Mason saw Jickling play with Half Japanese. According to Mason, the band was a “big influence” on the Tinklers, and the groups eventually recorded together.
“I got to know [Jickling] really well—we got to be good friends,” says Mason, who works as a teacher for hearing-impaired children in Baltimore. “But I didn’t ever know that he knew Greek.”
In fact, Jickling, also 52, was a comparative-literature major at the University of California at Berkeley. And Mason has been teaching himself Greek for the past five or six years, with the intention of reading The Odyssey. It was on Memorial Day 2002, at the wedding of mutual friend and Half Japanese founding member David Fair, that the two discovered their shared passion for Greek literature—the lyric poets in particular. But it wasn’t until Jickling’s 50th birthday party a few months later that Mason came up with the idea to set their own translations to music.
Over the past two-and-a-half years, working under the name Old Songs, they’ve translated and recorded close to 100 poems, collaborating with David Fair, vocalist/banjo player Liz Downing, and Richmond, Va., fiddler Rebby Sharp, among others. “We started out with the idea that it’d all be acoustic music,” says Jickling. “I don’t know why. I guess to be more authentic.”
“Yeah,” interjects a chuckling Mason, “because they didn’t have electricity back then.”
The Greek pieces were originally set to music, of course, though Jickling and Mason concede that no one really knows what it sounded like. “[T]here’s a lot of speculation,” says Jickling. “There are a couple of musical notations that survived that are carved on stone tablets, and people try to play them—academic types. It doesn’t sound like anything. We know what instruments they played, but we don’t know what they sounded like. You have a picture of little harps and lyres, but we don’t know what kinds of strings they had.”
Conjecture isn’t part of the process when the duo translates, however: Both try to stay as close as possible to the original Greek. Jickling admits that accurate translations aren’t always inspiring to those who don’t study the language. “We see this body of work, this poetry that’s so delightful to us and so full of energy,” he says. “But it isn’t accessible to people who don’t know Greek….By bringing in music, we can stick a lot closer to the original and still have the same kind of energy.”
That can be tough when the original is a fragmentary 2,000-year-old papyrus written hundreds of years after the poem was composed. “If you go back just a couple generations, people would feel free to fill in the holes in the papyrus,” says Jickling. “Whole lines, whole words. We’re very much against that.”
“It’s like painting mustaches on the Mona Lisa, which you can do if you’re Marcel Duchamp and everybody knows it’s a joke,” he explains. “But if you’re doing it seriously, sort of creating your own poetry and saying, ‘This is in some real sense a substitute for the original,’ that’s very suspicious to me. Chris and I both come out of this modernist tradition where you can live with a fragment—a fragment is acceptable. And the verse doesn’t have to be regular.”
Indeed, some of the duo’s songs are only one line long. “Idiot Judge,” part of a recorded collection of Hipponax fragments, consists of just the titular phrase repeated over and over, Fair’s vocals rumbling across Jickling’s mandolin and Ann Watts’ accordion. Like many of the numbers on Hipponax, it wouldn’t necessarily sound out of place on a Tinklers or Half Japanese record. Elsewhere—the many lines about Hermes, for example, or the one about a Lampsacanian eunuch—the effect is slightly more intellectual, if no more varnished.
Nonetheless, Jickling says, Old Songs requires much more discipline than Half Japanese did. “With Half Japanese, it was very much improvised songs,” he says. “You’d just sit down and play. Not sit down—we were standing up and jumping around. And we’d start playing and Jad would start singing, and the song would form out of that….[A] lot of it was spontaneous. Whereas this, for me at least, so far really hasn’t been…You have this nice text, but now you’ve gotta scramble it around again to get it into the tune. That’s really horrible and painful.”
“I think that’s the way the original [Greek] poets worked,” he adds. “I don’t think it was a spontaneous, inspirational kind of thing….They were like Gershwin and Irving Berlin or Lennon and McCartney. That’s my sense. It’s very polished art…very literary.”
Old Songs is the only project of its kind that either musician has heard of—though Jickling has been told of a group that created rock-inspired settings for works by Nobel Prize–winning modern Greek poet George Seferis. “I’ve never heard [the music],” he says. “Somebody called me up because he was writing a review of that, and he said, ‘I like your stuff much better. This is really too slick.’”
Despite their prolific recording, Mason and Jickling have played only two live shows so far. There are plans for more appearances in the future, and the two have so far managed to sell enough copies of their four CDs to recoup expenses—almost. “I haven’t added it up, but we’re probably fairly close,” says Jickling. “Well, maybe not yet, but we’re getting there….We’ve recorded pretty cheap.”
Still, Jickling believes the music has the potential for a broader appeal. “We’re kinda outside the indie-pop thing,” he says, “or we’re on the extreme, extreme fringe of that, but then there’s the folk-music audience, but we’re also on the fringe of that, but then there’s poets….We’ve got all these little niches.”
Donna Tuttle, a librarian and former Latin and ancient-history teacher at Baltimore’s Bryn Mawr prep school, fills a niche all her own. Tuttle is currently working on a project with eighth-graders from the all-girls school wherein the students memorize and perform bits of ancient poetry; she plans to use Old Songs music as a teaching aid.
“What I love,” says Tuttle, “is the combination of…two art forms from two wildly different times that mean the same thing.”
That meaning, to Tuttle, is “the deep need to connect with other people…to bring art and beauty into very hard times. [The poetry] seems like highfalutin stuff, but they’re talking about things that are really important—even to eighth-grade girls.”
Mason, for his part, points to the qualities that, for millennia, have kept the lyric poets in libraries—if not exactly in the hit parade. “Sappho might be writing about the shepherd bringing the sheep back…in the evening when the sun’s going down, so it could be a very simple thought, but the way she does it is very sophisticated,” he says. “You have this image in the morning—they go out from the house, and then they come back.”
“To me it’s like a helicopter-eye view,” says Jickling. “She’s looking down and seeing this dispersal and then this coalescing at the end of the day. And where did that come from? That’s just inspiration.”
The poem to which they’re referring is “Sappho 104a,” whose translated version is the first track on Old Songs’ debut, 19 Old Songs. It’s also the song with which, on a cold Saturday night in mid-January, Mason, Jickling, and Downing open their second-ever show. The space, Dupont Circle’s Washington Printmakers Gallery, has a capacity of maybe two dozen, but about twice that many people are crammed into the small, white-walled cube—not to mention the folks spilling out into the hallway and down the stairs.
Downing’s sweetly high pitch weaves around Mason’s flat tenor and almost artless strumming as they sing:
Evening star brings back
What bright dawn has scattered
Brings back the sheep
Brings back the goats
Brings back the children to their mother
Later, Jickling will crack that “it doesn’t take much to pack that place.” But for the moment, that doesn’t matter: Small or not, the crowd is loving it.CP