Ron Fein Sings Jack London

  1. Sea Wolf (5:40)
  2. Acorn Planter (4:27)
  3. John Barleycorn (9:00)
  4. To Build a Fire (6:21)
  5. Valley of the Moon (4:55)
  6. Call of the Wild (3:27)
  7. Northland (8:34)
  8. Burning Daylight (6:23)
  9. All Gold Canyon (5:41)

photo montage by Paul Hadley.

All music performed for voice and piano, composed and text arranged, by Ron Fein.

Writer Jack London (1876-1916) was a storyteller, nature lover and lone protagonist. His prose contains veiled traces of poetic language which I have unearthed and set to music.

When young I became captivated by his life and work, so when invited to perform at the Jack London Museum, I felt an opportunity emerging. I revisited his epics leading to the source of my passion for wandering the world disengaged and invisible. This solo performance is an expression of that ecstatic vitality. London’s prose contains veiled traces of poetic language, which I have unearthed and set to music. -RF

The Modern Troubadour Series represents a movement of composers who create and perform their works. Exploration of form, harmony, rhythm and technology are personal and poignant, embracing the future of song and musical expression.

In “Ron Fein Sings Jack London – Thunder in his Hand,” Ron takes on the writing of American icon Jack London. Reframing the role of the piano, from a virtuosic instrument, Ron has incorporated it in the tradition of the troubadour, much as the lute or portable continuo instruments might have been used in early music. The differences of course are due to the tremendous musical developments since the middle ages, including atonality, polytonality, modern vocal techniques, rhythmic and metric variations, not to mention the vast cultural waves that have flowed over and through western civilization since the time of the original troubadours.

But as with the medieval troubadour, the music is completely dependent upon the verse. In the case of Jack London, they are the words of the rugged individual, the wanderer and explorer, at a time when the great westward expansion was at its end. Given the task at hand, Ron has used many open harmonies on the piano to exemplify the sense of power, struggle and accomplishment present in many American minds, destined to push forward.

London’s words also explore his alcoholism, in “John Barleycorn,” survival in the wild in “To Build a Fire,” and the fierce imprisonment on a ship, in “Sea Wolf.” London’s genius in expressing both sensitivity and virility, sometimes simultaneously, are mirrored in these settings by Ron’s impetuous reactions in both text and piano execution. In this sense, the piano is the perfect medium, due to its range and dynamic capabilities, which is used to its full extent. Through the use of falsetto and modern vocal applications in which visceral emotion moves beyond the traditional classical voice, Ron is able to express words in perfect parallel with London’s emotional world.

1 – Sea Wolf (text and program notes)

A voice behind me – unmistakable voice

Booming down on the old trail,
our own trail, the out trail,
all time echoing through me
wonder and perplexity, questing,
everlasting query

Triumph of movement over matter,
the quick over the dead
a shade too massive for one
a shade too delicate for the other

Latent savagery stirring
for the old words, so bound up
within the roots of the race
to grip and thrill me

All here and more than here
the world was not.

He still lives, Lucifer – proud spirit
cast into the sea

Rescue us from ourselves
tremulous lids fluttered down,
veiled her eyes,
rescue us from ourselves

Perhaps Jack London’s most complex novel, definitely one of his most popular, The Sea Wolf is about both entrapment and love, human power and connection.

A man is kidnapped after being rescued from a ferry accident inside the Golden Gate, subjected to the tyranny of a captain – both unpredictable and brilliant. Trapped between the world of the mind and of brutality, he utilizes these elements to find salvation and ultimately love, with another unfortunate female captor.

2 – Acorn-Planter (text and program notes)

In the morning of the world
he sings of the duty of life
sings of foreboding and prophecy
sings that war is the only way to life

Carries thunder in his hand
the spring will no longer flow
fruit and flower in his glances
till his pathway was a garden

Turn deserts grim and stark
to laughing lands
ever they plant for life

For the voices of children playing
the laughter in the twilight
the lovers’ song in the gloom

Ever they plant for life
till pathway was a garden
in the morning of the world

The Acorn Planter is about a utopian world – an important theme for London – mostly through his observation of the inequality of the American political system. London’s idea of utopia was centered in the natural world, in simplicity, self-sufficiency and beauty. This relates directly to the farm and grounds he worked on establishing in Glen Ellen, California, on the present site of Jack London State Park.

3 – John Barleycorn (text and program notes)

A friend to John Barleycorn
I am. I was. I am not. I never am.

Never less his friend,
when I seem most his friend.

The king of liars,
the frankest truth sayer
clear vision and muddy dreams

Through my brain, like gusts
of wide free wind, rocked over
the wild, mad glorious world

John Barleycorn, tricking my fancy
to anticipate the life of adventure
for which I yearned

Yankee ship come down the river
pull my bully boys, pull!

Yes, he is a strange friend

Life was brave and wild
chesty sea-rovers among
the paper houses of Japan
money in all our pockets
hearts free and generous
too much too young

Never again, the call
from over and beyond
at the back of life
and behind the stars –
a savagery from the mad
old brutal days

Barleycorn sends his white logic
cruel and bleak as interstellar space
dissipates to mist the paradox of being

The white logic now lies decently buried
his sleep is sound, but flourished everywhere
and I, long trained in his acquaintance

London lived only to the age of 40. Even in 1916 it was an early death, and quite possibly alcohol had much to do with it. John Barleycorn contains a romantic view of alcohol, in this his most autobiographical writing. It is a rationalization of his connection to drink, in taverns and social life. Its dilemma is how drink was connected to his many adventures, and at the same time how it limited his freedom while experiencing them.

4 – To Build a Fire (text and program notes)

Losing battle with the frost
creeping from all sides
meeting death with dignity

First glimmerings of drowsiness
to sleep off to death
out of himself

Comfortable, satisfying sleep
in a long slow twilight
no signs of fire

Remained silent
the scent of death
bristle and back away

One of London’s best stories, that many writers admire for its economy of language and directness, To Build a Fire is about survival in the wild. It is a last chance to redeem oneself, after a critical mistake – and all this under the scrutiny of mans’ best friend. It is about how life might fade from ones’ consciousness – in a dream, or ebbing into an alternate reality.

5 – Valley of the Moon (program notes)

Valley of the Moon is a two-volume novel by London, in which he reflects on a transition from a hard urban life to discovering nature and a bountiful existence around it.

This is a piece for solo piano – a reverie to the novel, but also a celebration of nature through revisiting a simple theme in changing, increasingly intimate ways.

6 – Call of the Wild (text and program notes)

Song of the huskies
pitched in minor key
long, drawn wailings
and half-sobs
more the pleading of life
the articulate travail
of existence

His heart would be shaken
out of his body,
so great was his ecstasy
his mouth laughing, eyes eloquent,
throat vibrant
with unuttered sound –
you can all but speak!

Mercy in primordial life,
misunderstood for fear,
made for death

Deep in the forest,
a call was sounding
mysteriously thrilling
and luring –

Half wolves, wild wolves
scenting the wind with him

The dog, the sled dog – a slave to its owner – but also endowed with the opportunity to observe, and perhaps join, its origin. This is the stuff of London’s northern tales – anthropomorphic language – attributing human qualities to non-human subjects. From some writers this approach would be trite or insignificant, but London was a master of it, creating an unfailing interest and depth – stories that are enthralling and consuming.

7 – Northland (text and program notes)

Yet to divine its secret essence
by the cumulative evidence of years

Contempt for his own people
a polyglot whirlwind of curses

Dim ancestors perpetuated their line –
a feeling of infinite distance

The lawgiver and world-maker
among the families of men

Looking in at the window, the picture,
without beginning, the end
without understanding

Silence of gloom is merciful,
breathing a thousand intangible

White silence, clear and cold,
under steely skies,
is pitiless

London’s short stories did not produce much in the way of poetry, being highly descriptive, graphic, and rife with superlatives. But in the Northland Stories, through characters such as Axel Gunderson, the Malemute Kid, Sitka Charlie, Sturges Owen, Li Wan and others both named and anonymous, a few precious lines will appear.

I have assembled some of these phrases and reflective moments, into a kind of haiku, that when assembled reflect the savagery, bleakness and right of passage portrayed in these stories. In order of the stanzas, the texts are from The Wisdom of the Trail, The God of his Fathers, The League of Old Men, The Sun-Dog Trail and The White Silence.

8 – Burning Daylight (text and program notes)

Trees on the knolls
seemed to beckon

He drank it in
in deep breaths

The grain waist-high
the aroma of it
delighted nostrils
through open woods

Flower-scattered glades –
with a shock,
the beauty of the world

Oak and manzanita gave way
to stately redwoods

Quiet woods noises belonged here,
made the solitude complete

Ever the forest climbed with him,
ever the clean joy and sweetness
upon senses

at first dazzling in its brightness

Velvet trunked, wine-wooded forest
meadow-bordered streamlet

Butterflies, rifted in sunshine
and shadow

Thrum of flight
quail hidden in thickets

Here on the crest,
with sparkling eyes

In longer works such as the novel Burning Daylight, poetic language emerges through adversity, sometimes resulting in transcendence. Here a strong character, Daylight himself, makes his way up the side of Sonoma Mountain, re-encountering nature and an affinity long lost to him.

Jack London’s lifespan overlapped that of Walt Whitman, but it is not known how well London knew his poetry. London dreamed of being a poet, but felt he did not have the talent or temperament for that type of art. Resemblance to the work of Whitman may be observed here, in the use of nature imagery for the purpose of personal discovery.

9 – All Gold Canyon (text and program notes)

Drifting sound, drifting color
weaved together, delicate intangible fabric
spirit of peace, not of death
but smooth pulsing life
quietude that was not silence
movement that was not action

Spirit of the place, of the peace of the living
Somnolent with the ease and content
of prosperity

Undisturbed by rumors of far wars

Red-coated, many antlered buck
lordship of the spirit of the place
languid with rest
ears moved when storm whispered
garrulous at discovery
that it had slept

Ears lifted and tensed
with swift eagerness for sound
scented the air

Eyes could not pierce, but to his ears
came the voice, harsh clash of metal
upon rock

Snorted with a sudden start
through the air from water to meadow
into the young velvet
pricked ears, and again scented the air
pausing once and again to listen

Faded away, out of the canyon
soft footed, without sound

The human infiltration of nature was something London was very concerned with. This was partly a reaction to the end of westward expansion, and whole-heartedly a declamation of his love of nature and true wilderness.

An idyllic setting, disrupted by an insensitive intruder, then back to its former glory.