“Cluck Old Hen” and Shakespeare’s Sonnet V – a substance still lives sweet.

Here is a silly little arrangement I did a while back of the American folk tune known as “Cluck Old Hen.” I came to know it through a girlfriend of my longtime musical partner Peter Michelini. Peter and I played music together from the 9th grade through to the third Archguitar Duo album, in 1995.

Back in the mid 1980s, we found ourselves busking in Florence and Peter knew a lovely young woman named Lily Prigioniero who worked restoring frescoes in luxurious apartments in the heart of this favorite city. A quick Google search today reveals that she successfully writes books about that craft; no surprise. Lily was also a fine singer and, being American by birth, she knew a bunch of sweet old folk tunes.

In those days of busking and endless traveling, Peter and I made cassette recordings, almost compulsively, of live music, our daily performances, snatches of radio and television, and little stories, some spontaneous, others rehearsed – our own little productions. We kept the cassettes in a big cardboard box in the traveling van within which we also lived. On a long late night drive from, say, Florence to Antwerp, we would pop these into the van stereo for a laugh. On one of the cassettes was a hauntingly lovely half-hour of Lily singing, among other songs, Cluck Old Hen.

Agonizingly, I recently realized that I’d thrown the box of tapes out in one of my many moves over a tough, five-year stretch. Sometimes, for the sake of progress, you have to lighten the load and things get a little drastic. However, years before pitching the cassette, I produced a multi-track demo of Cluck Old Hen. My version is nothing like Lily’s- hers was sweet and sort of lonesome sounding. After I read about the song’s political connections and having only my own tools to use, I came up with the following:

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Rediscovering the old demo reminded me of how Shakespeare wrote, with utmost brilliance, of how time robs us of the physical beauty so abundant in the spring and summer of our lives. This sonnet is one I’ve known by heart for years, and I always welcome a chance to recite it. I speak it aloud sometimes a couple of dozen times a day if I need to spend an hour driving, or doing errands. (Click for a helpful annotation of the poem). Here, though, I am reflecting on the time having passed since I first heard this lovely song and then, despite initially capturing it on tape, I lost it forever, and then re-discovered a sketch based loosely on the original “flower” of a girl’s voice, so touching, yet meaning little to anyone but me.

Those hours, that with gentle work did frame
The lovely gaze where every eye doth dwell,
Will play the tyrants to the very same
And that unfair which fairly doth excel:

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there;
Sap check’d with frost and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnow’d and bareness every where:
Then, were not summer’s distillation left,
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,

Beauty’s effect with beauty were bereft,

Nor it nor no remembrance what it was:

But flowers distill’d though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.

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