19/11/15 – Joanna Newsom – Sapokanikan – 2015

Joanna Newsom Green dressHarpist, pianist, vocalist, songwriter and visionary nut, Joanna Newsom released a new album, Divers in October on Drag City. Sapokanikan is the first single from the album, the video sees her wandering around New York City and one wonders what it’s all about? It doesn’t take you long to realize it doesn’t really matter, she is simply intriguing. She’s like a clear thinking Syd Barrett with eccentric melodies and early Kate Bush harmonies circa Never Forever and Lionheart – she makes Björk sound like Bob Seger.

Her skills on the harp put together with her impish voice and storybook lyrics of secret worlds, confirms her as unique amongst us mere mortals. The lyrics are actually fascinating – 19th century Fairy Tales told in thatched cottages around candle lit wide-eyed gatherings. She’s like a child from the forest appearing in far away villages like a phantom, an omen acting out her own fantasy world in her songs for a bedazzled audience. If you had to describe the music it’s Folk or Psych Folk, the melodies weaving like the braids of a princess from an old master painting.

It all makes sense to her and might be too out there for most tastes, but it is actually more down to Earth than it seems and she attracts a dedicated audience all over the world. To give you a reference point for the lyrics, Ozymanidas is a poem by English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley written in 1818 in competition with his friend Horace Smith.

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Horace Smith’s poem:

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place


This from Culturedarm.com explains those two tricky words in the first two lines of the song.

“Sapokanikan’ is a place name, used by the Lenape Native American tribe for a small seasonal village and trading post which they inhabited on Manhattan Island, on the east bank of the Hudson River. There until the early 1600s, the Lenape – also known as the Delaware Indians – would hunt and fish and trade with other tribes and early European settlers. The Lenape spoke the Unami language, and the name ‘Manhattan’ comes from the Unami ‘Manna-hata’, which has been translated as ‘island of many hills’. The footpath which the Lenape used to travel inland from Sapokanikan served as the basis for today’s Gansevoort Street, in New York City’s Meatpacking District.”

“In antiquity, ‘Ozymandias’ was a Greek name for Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, and often regarded as the greatest pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire owing to the series of campaigns he undertook in the Levant, including across the extent of modern-day Syria. The name is best known however as the title of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most recognised and most anthologised poem. ‘Ozymandias’ was first published on 11 January 1818, in the London weekly The Examiner.

A few months earlier, the British Museum had announced the acquisition of a large, 7.25 tonne fragment of a statue of Ramesses II. Dating from the thirteenth century BC, it shows the pharaoh’s head, and continues to be one of the British Museum’s most significant works of Egyptian sculpture. While the statue wouldn’t arrive at the museum until 1821, this initial announcement is taken to have inspired Shelley’s poem.”

Shelley wrote it over the Christmas period as a sonnet, in competition with his close friend, the poet and stockbroker Horace Smith. Smith’s sonnet on the subject, under the same title, appeared in The Examiner a few weeks after Shelley’s. Both poems explore the transitory nature of power and the ravages of time: depicting a fragment of a statue half-buried amid an expanse of desert, which is all that remains to obliquely recall a once-mighty ruler. While Smith’s sonnet conjures a now-forgotten civilisation, and makes an explicit connection to contemporary London, Shelley’s instead contrasts the faded power of a king with the enduring characteristics of art.

This is the lyric to Joanna Newsom’s song:

The cause is Ozymandian
The map of Sapokanikan
Is sanded and bevelled
The land lorn and levelled
By some unrecorded and powerful hand

Which plays along the monument
And drums upon a plastic bag
The brave-men-and-women-so-dear-to-God-
And-famous-to-all-of-the-ages rag

Sang do you love me?
Will you remember?
The snow falls above me
The renderer renders:
The event is in the hand of God

Beneath a patch of grass, her
Bones the old Dutch master hid
While elsewhere Tobias
And the angel disguise
What the scholars surmise was a mother and kid

Interred with other daughters
In dirt in other potters’ fields
Above them, parades
Mark the passing of days
Through parks where pale colonnades arch in marble and steel

Where all of the twenty-thousand attending your footfall
And the causes they died for are lost in the idling bird calls
And the records they left are cryptic at best
Lost in obsolescence
The text will not yield, nor x-ray reveal
With any fluorescence
Where the hand of the master begins and ends

I fell, I tried to do well but I won’t be
Will you tell the one that I love to remember and hold me
I call and call for the doctor
But the snow swallows me whole with ol’ Florry Walker
And the event lives only in print

He said:
“It’s alright”
And “It’s all over now”
And boarded the plane
His belt unfastened
The boy was known to show unusual daring
And, called a “boy”
This alderman, confounding Tammany Hall
In whose employ King Tamanend himself preceeded John’s fall

So we all raise a standard
To which the wise and honest soul may repair
To which a hunter
A hundred years from now, may look and despair
And see with wonder
The tributes we have left to rust in the parks
Swearing that our hair stood on end
To see John Purroy Mitchel depart

For the Western front where work might count
O mercy! O God!
Go out, await the hunter to decipher the stone
And what lies under the city is gone

Look and despair
Look and despair

To sum up, she’s special or you might not be interested, but she takes me with her on the wings of her imagination and I follow her willingly, hypnotized by her pure sweet madness.