Channeling Dunbar & Dylan

by Ed Davis on August 23, 2016

I recall, years ago at the Antioch Writers Workshop, watching from afar as Herbert Woodward Martin prepared himself to become Paul Laurence Dunbar. Herb had sequestered himself outside the auditorium to do what he needed to do in order to let the famous Dayton poet inhabit his body, his mind, maybe even his soul.

To channel Dunbar. What does that mean when artists say they’re “channeling” someone else?

Do You Believe in Magic?

I hadn’t thought much about this quasi-mystical term until recently. Reuniting with my old professional musician friend Tom Martin (www.martinsguitar.com), I surprised him by remarking that his channeling Bob Dylan had allowed me to channel Dylan during the writing of my novel The Psalms of Israel Jones. “But,” Tom asked, “how did I give you Dylan and how’d that lead to Mr. Jones?”  It’s a good question:  what does channeling mean and what role does it play in creative life?

While I’d like to at least allow for the possibility of magic—there is much about creativity that is mysterious, after all—channeling seems more natural than supernatural to me:  a process any artist can access, with time, experience and motivation.

More than Mimicry

Since the sixties, I’ve loved many of Bob Dylan’s songs as performed by others, especially The Byrds. I just didn’t much like his voice, described by a journalist as sounding like “somebody’s grand-dad.” And yet, when, two decades later, I heard Tom play “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Girl from the North Country,” singing them as Dylan, with as much of Dylan’s voice and attitude as he could muster, I experienced a joyous sucker-punch to my soul. I finally got Dylan’s antiauthoritarian outsiderness; the need to question everything and everyone; to rip off every mask; to live now, every second, until you die.

And I got all that from hearing Dylan coming through Tom.

Power of the Personal

While I believe anyone can channel, I don’t believe everyone can channel just anyone.

Having a lot in common helps. Herb, like Dunbar, is African-American, a wizard with words and the possessor of a gorgeous speaking/singing voice. Tom, like Dylan, is a fine acoustic guitarist and harmonica-player who can condense a novel into a song, complete with characters, plot and theme. Like Dylan, Tom has some great rock and roll chops, too. The skills he’s honed over fifty or so years of playing contribute a lot to bringing forth Dylan, just as every poem and piece of fiction I ever wrote somehow led directly to Israel Jones.

Yes, I was intimidated when first I conceived my novel project, since, from the get-go, Dylan was the model for Israel Jones. I knew I would need to describe live performances, to let him sing and speak through me—to behave in ways the man who wrote Dylan’s songs would act. I wrote lyrics to Israel Jones’ songs by “hearing” Dylan’s voice—but I would’ve never had access without Tom’s channeling him for me first.

The Essence

However, Herb does not channel the real Dunbar any more than Tom channels the real Dylan. It’s the intuited essence of their subject that answers their summons, filtered through the rich and varied experience of their own lives. There’s a lot of Herb in his Dunbar, a lot of Tom in his Dylan. The channeler uses powerful tools like music, poetry and art to present original recreations that astonish, delight and change both artist and audience in profound and unpredictable ways.

The product of channeling is something old and something new at the same time, the intersection of perceiver and perceived; or, perhaps more accurately—and  affectionately, for this process is nothing if not emotional—the lover and the beloved.

I love Tom Martin’s Bob Dylan as he lives in Israel Jones.  As he lives in me.

P.S.

If you’ve never seen Herb perform Dunbar, put him on your bucket list now. As for Tom, he’s returned to the music scene in fine form—I recently saw him play at The Village Wine Cellars in Lebanon, Ohio, picking up exactly where I left him at the beginning of the ‘90s.

P.P.S.

Classes at Words Worth Writing Center in Dayton, Ohio, featuring instructors Katrina Kittle and Jeanne Estridge, begin August 30, 2016 and continue through December 8. Easy on-line registration and entire schedule at http://www.wordsworthdayton.com/id67.html

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