Beat Soundtrack #24: Ron Whitehead
In which prominent Beat figures, writers and critics, historians and academics, fans and followers, talk about the relationship between that literary community and music
Poet, writer, editor, publisher, professor, scholar, activist and Lifetime Beat Poet Laureate, Ron Whitehead is the author of 25 books and 35 albums. He has produced thousands of events and festivals, including 24, 48, 72 and 90 hour non-stop music & poetry ‘Insomniacathons’, in Europe and the USA.
He has gathered many significant supporters, giants of the American literary scene, over the decades. Hunter S. Thompson said: ‘I have long admired Ron Whitehead. He is crazy as nine loons, and his poetry is a dazzling mix of folk wisdom and pure mathematics.’
Lawrence Ferlinghetti was also complimentary: ‘Ron Whitehead is a real visionary. Ron Whitehead, out there in Kentucky, is sowing the dragon’s teeth of a new heroics. Ron Whitehead is Bodhisattva in Kentucky.’
The biographical film Outlaw Poet: The Legend of Ron Whitehead movie is now available for viewing on Amazon Video in its documentaries category. Below, the poet offers his unique reflections on the Beat/music crossover in his life and art drawing on biography and anecdote, prose and verse…
What attracted you to the Beats? When did you first encounter them?
I grew up on a wild nature backwoods Kentucky farm. I was born an anti-authoritarian iconoclast. I come from a long line of farmers, coal miners, Holy Roller preachers, gypsies, strong men and women.
Daddy worked at the coal mines for 43 years. I worked at the mines 3 times. Daddy dropped out of school in 10th grade, so he could start working at the mines. He was a mechanical genius. He was a farmer, Deputy Sheriff, and bare knuckle boxer who never lost a fight. And he loved poems and stories. He memorised poems.
Pictured above: Ron Whitehead. Image by Jinn Bug
I grew up in a musical family, on Mama's side. She's the oldest of 13. Daddy was one of 11. I'm their oldest of 6. Mama's Dad, Grandaddy Raymond ‘Ray’ ‘Dick’ ‘The Dixie Yodeler’ Render was a performer, recording artist, heavy equipment operator, and a barber.
He and Mose Rager played, sang, and told stories at their barber shops, in Ohio and Muhlenberg Counties. I grew up in Ohio County, where Bill Monroe birthed Bluegrass. Mose Rager was from Muhlenberg County, across the Green River. He taught the Everly Brothers, distant cousins, and Merle Travis everything they knew about music.
The great popular music historian Tony Russell included chapters on Grandaddy and Mose in his Country Music Originals: The Legends and The Lost (Oxford University Press). Tony interviewed Mama and me for the book. I was listening to old-time mountain hillbilly blues, gospel, spirituals when I was still in Mama's womb. That music still goes straight to my heart.
My parents subscribed to national magazines. That's how I first read about the Holocaust and the Beat Generation, late 1950s. I spent half my time outdoors and half my time reading everything I could get my hands on.
I started joining book clubs when I was a kid: biography, geography, history. I read dictionaries, encyclopedias, magazines, hymnals, novels, songbooks, whatever I could get my hands on. I have always loved music and poetry. Poems, stories and songs pound in my blood, plead in my heart, sing in my soul.
My brother and I slept in an unfinished attic. Holes in the walls. Wind danced through the cedars and pines then came whistling and singing through those holes. We had twin beds, and an AM radio on a night stand. Every night I listened to WLS 890am radio out of Chicago. Bob Dylan, from the first notes, the first words, knocked me out.
I recognised Dylan’s lyrics, his poemed songs, from the old-time music I listened to: Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Gospel Quartets, hillbilly blues, delta blues, white and black blues, and the poets and writers of the English Romantics I was being taught in school, and the Beat Generation, whose works I was tracking down any way I could find them.
At the end of nearly every Sunday morning service at the Centertown Baptist Church the Choir Director Modella Doyle led the congregation in singing ‘Just As I Am’.
When I was 15, ‘The Impossible Dream’ was a popular song. My brother Brad and cousins Stan and Steve briefly formed an acapella quartet. One Sunday morning we sang that very song as part of the church service.
POEM 1: ‘Music Saved My Life and Bob Dylan Saved My Soul’ by Ron Whitehead
‘Just as I am without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me’
We were a gospel quartet Brad Steve Stan and me
singing our hearts out ‘The Impossible Dream’
Sunday morning service at the Centertown Baptist Church
After the preaching and ‘Just As I Am’
Page came up and smiling said ‘boys that was sure good’
and she added laughing real loud ‘and Ronnie you sure are animated’
And then Saundra Karyl chimed in with ‘yes that was fine
but Ronnie you were flat’ and oh my oh my oh my
I went home swearing I'd never sing again
and I didn't until I got in the car
turned on the radio and heard Bob Dylan
singing ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ ‘how does it feel
to be on your own a complete unknown’ and
I caught myself breaking my promise
So what if I was flat as a pancake
Music had saved my life more than once
and every time I'd listened non-stop to
Bob Dylan well ever since I was 12 years old
every time I heard him sing I felt deep down inside
he was saving my soul helping me want to keep on
keeping on no matter what the hell was going on
And I knew then as I knew before and after that
I'd never quit listening to Bob Dylan who I regard
to this day as The Best of them all better than Homer
better than Shakespeare his words his songs helped
me know I'd never abandon song I'd never quit
listening to the Gift of God sweet music and even
if I couldn't in public at least in private I'd keep on
singing and well us boys Brad Steve Stan and me
well I believe all our lives and souls were saved
more than once by music by Bob Dylan and
yes we listened to every kind of music we heard
it all church music and funeral dirges as Mama and
her sister Jo Carolyn sang far back as I remember
I see people climbing on coffins including Pappy
trying to keep Mammy from leaving him behind
her lying there in the pine yes we heard gospel
and blues and we heard country mixed with
traditional oldtime folk mountain Appalachian
going back to Ireland and Scotland and England and Wales
and we listened to Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams
and Bill Monroe and Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn
and Woody Guthrie and Odetta and Jean Ritchie
and Pete Seeger and The Everly Brothers and
Merle Travis and Robert Johnson and Mose Rager
and Grandaddy and The Montgomery Brothers and
Brother Matthew's Gospel Quartet with my 3rd grade
teacher Mrs. Duncan banging on that piano like I'd never
heard in no Baptist Church and I got excited Oh Lord
can music make you feel this good? brought tears to
my boy eyes made goosebumps run all up and down
my back and all over my body made my flat topped hair
stand up straight and tall without no butch wax on it
And then came Elvis and Johnny and Jerry Lee and
My parents said turn it off but they were glued too
and didn't couldn't move eyes staring in disbelief but
excited what in the world is this and everybody felt
that way more excited than ashamed wanting to be
part of that energy that we all know must be a gift
from some greater source and for my generation
for me Bob Dylan yes The Beatles and The Rolling Stones but
Bob Dylan from the first note I heard him perform
Late one night I was 12 years old upstairs in the attic
where my brother Brad and I slept holes in the walls
of our old farmhouse wind whispering through cedar
and pine through those holes I saw plenty of ghosts
up there but I also every night listened to 89WLS on
AM radio outta Chicago and the sound went in and out
depending on the weather and Daddy some nights he
home from working double shifts at the coal mines
yelled up the stairs as the radio had gotten real loud
and Bob was singing ‘How does it feel’ Daddy yelled
‘Turn that damn thing down or I'm coming up there’
And being a poet who loves music as much as poetry
well Bob's words and I knew them all by heart
Bob's words saved my soul growing up in the pioneer lands
of Kentucky where Bluegrass was birthed distant cousin
of The Everly Brothers I grew up with music and I
mean every kind of music but the poemed music that
has sustained me all these years that has always and
continues to save my soul to save me from death in life
is The Master Bob Dylan's music which always
directed me towards God as if music came from God
and every time I turned to Bob Dylan's music life
became bearable again I thought about Resurrection
again I thought about redemption again
‘And that thou bid'st me come to thee
O Lamb of God, I come! I come!’
Pictured above: Musical hero meets poetic legend – David Amram with Ron Whitehead. Image by Jinn Bug
As a poet, musician and spoken word performer have you been shaped or influenced by Beat experiences?
My entire life has been a Beat experience, the early years but especially after I left the farm.
POEM 2: ‘There Was No Way to Say Goodbye’ by Ron Whitehead
The gentle breeze through open windows
danced with tea bags twirling on my ceiling.
Songs of Leonard Cohen was on repeat.
October 1968. My heart stretched across a chasm.
Letting go of the past, moving on. Striding into
this new world I had longed for since I was born.
The land of music and poetry and revolution.
I was here at last. I had arrived.
Love was in the air, and I embraced her fully.
There was no way to say goodbye to what was.
I knew my years on the farm would always be with me.
But the time had come round at last for change
to be my lover. We walked together hand in hand
on the shoreline by the sea. Psychedelic posters
adorned the walls. A stolen tombstone lined with candles.
The sound system of my dreams. And albums albums
albums of every kind of music I could discover
in underground head shops and record stores.
My room was filled with wonder.
I was here to discover the mysteries.
I was ready to experience the miracles
that had remained hidden for too long.
The adventure had begun.
There was no way to say goodbye.
Who are your own favourite singers, musicians and bands? Do they represent Beat ideas or attitudes in their lives and art?
Homer, Lao Tzu, Rumi, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Whitman, Rimbaud, Yeats, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti, Dylan, Cohen, Angelou, Heaney, Waits, [Shane] MacGowan, Cave and so many more.
POEM 3: ‘The Great Blue Heron of Quasar Poetry’ by Ron Whitehead
I sit alone reading an old western, The Big Sky by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.,
a brilliant book. Well, I'm not alone.
Mu is asleep, snoring, at the other end of the couch.
Gypsy's outside somewhere.
Birds are singing. Fall has arrived here
on the banks of the great river.
The days are warm and sunny, the nights are full of stars.
No rain in sight.
I was born under a tree, in an open field,
in the midst of a blizzard, that included
lightning and thunder,
in the age before time began.
On the day I died the storm passed,
the weather became calm, clear skies, like today.
That's when my life really got started,
back when I became wind and water
and earth and sky and fire, one with all of nature.
I can't begin to describe to you what it's like.
You'll have to try it on your own.
I recommend it.
There's nothing else like it.
Forgiveness and moving on are central.
Confess all your wrongs, write them on the sandy beach,
and watch them wash away. That's how we work, here in nature.
All is forgiven.
Nature always moves on,
in dramatic and peaceful fashion.
No calendars here. Time was, time is, time will be doesn't figure.
There's no time in nature.
No religion. No politics. Lots of angels singing, accompanying
crickets, frogs, whales, seals, lions, tigers, bears, wolves...
You get the sound picture. Dig it.
Nature is the real genuine original groove.
Nature is easy and smooth, and wild and crazy and cataclysmic.
Nature is the most natural thing on Earth.
Go ahead and sign up. What a trip!
Writing is the great escape from despair and madness.
Writing is the untrammeled path to the wilderness of
good dreams come true. If every writer in every book
in your public library and local bookstore
found a way to do it then so can you!
So go ahead and do it, start writing,
and keep writing, no matter what anyone says,
no matter how hard the wind blows, the fires rage,
and the waters flood. Write it all down. Never stop writing.
Brief pauses for morsels of food and drink. That's it.
Don't quit! You are more determined than a mother fox
finding food for her hungry young. Determination is central.
Be sunlight in snow. Be peace in war. Be grace in anger.
Be hope in hopelessness. Be belief in criticism.
You don't have to spit in their eyes, just keep doing
what you are doing, and that is to write, and write, and write.
Write longer than the longest distance runner.
You are filled with honesty and realness. Nothing else.
You speak only the truth that is in you. No other words.
Your words are a blessing, somehow, somewhere,
to someone, especially right now, to your self. Write them down.
Empty yourself. There is no bottom to your pockets.
The words in your pockets are more vast than
all the galaxies in outer space.
You are the quasar beyond all imagined quasars!
You are the great blue heron of quasar poetry!
Sing it! Sing it proud and strong.
Be your own damn self, now and from now on!
Beyond paying for your basic needs,
what's the use of all that money you're killing yourself to earn?
Rebirth yourself into the person you always dreamed of being.
What are you waiting for? Someone to give you the word?
Okay, I'm giving you the word. Find and be your dream, now.
The waiting is over. Your time has come at last.
And there's no time like now, ever.
Nothing is as satisfying as being a poet.
Take up your pen and write.
And never look back.
Be touched by words.
And sing your poems with soul.
– The poem above is the title piece in a soon-to-be published collection from the pen of Ron Whitehead. The Great Blue Heron of Quasar Poetry: New & Selected Works, 1992-2022 will be released in December 2022 by TranceMission Press/Indiana