Robert Frank’s The Americans ushered in a new era for photography, focusing on the daily trials and triumphs of everyday people. He took 28,000 snapshots in his two-year trip across the United States in the mid-‘50s, selecting just 83 for the final book. Each shot invokes a uniquely American loneliness, whites and blacks separate in stature but equal in isolation. In the book’s introduction, Jack Kerouac wrote, “Anybody doesnt like these pitchers dont like potry, see?”
Decades later, art buffs worldwide do see. In September, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an exhibition of original prints of all 83 photos, arranged in the same meticulously thought-out order just in the book. To help honor the occasion, Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse organized “A Salute to Robert Frank, Artist and Friend.”
Patti Smith first collaborated with Frank when he directed the video for her 1996 single “Summer Cannibals.” As the evening progressed she shared many amusing anecdotes about the quiet shuffling man. She described humbly showing him her own photographs and the elation she felt when he told her, “I see what you’re doing.” “When Robert says that,” she asked aloud, “Who the fuck cares what anyone else thinks?”
Mostly though, her musings on Frank came through recitation and song. On the poetry side, Jesse Smith selected a broad spectrum of material from the well known (Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing”) to the obscure (Patti Smith’s own “combe”). Throughout, the images of old-time America echoed the photos. The first onstage words, in fact, were Smith’s herself, coming from a personal notebook written in April 1971. Printed in the advertisements leading up to the show and the bulletin during, it framed the event around the point where Smith and Frank meet.
I keep trying to figure out what it means to be American. When I look in myself I see Abyssinia, nineteenth-century France, but I can’t recognize what makes me American. I think about Robert Frank’s photographs—broke down jukeboxes in Gallup, New Mexico, swaying hips and spurs, ponytails and syphilitic cowpokes, hash slingers, the glowing black tarp of US 285 and the Hoboken stars and stripes.
I think about a red, white and blue rag
I wrap around my head.
Maybe it’s nothing material; maybe it’s just being free.
Freedom is a waterfall, is pacing linoleum till dawn,
the right to write the wrong words.
And I done plenty of that...
Smith tackled her own American history with poems about her birthplace of Chicago (Carl Sandburg’s “Mag”) and her adopted home of New York (an excerpt from E.B. White’s “Here Is New York”). She never veered into the self-indulgent though, interspersing all her selections with messages from Robert, who had been forced to abandon his planned appearance. Before reading a section of William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands, she commented that this was the piece Frank requested she read at the event. She shrugged her shoulders as she said it, saying she wasn’t sure why he chose it. The connections between the words and images didn’t need to be clear though; the feeling tied the two in a way specificity never could.
The songs Smith chose to perform veered away from her own material. She only performed four original songs (“Trampin’,” “Beneath the Southern Cross,” “Ghost Dance” and “People Have the Power”), instead imagining what Frank might have heard coming over the AM as he drove across the country in the mid-‘50s. She has never publicly performed before many of these songs before, and may never again.
The first cover came halfway through the evening with Smith’s take on “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” Originally written in 1934 for Roy Rogers’ band the Sons of the Pioneers, singer Kate Smith had a hit with the tune in the ‘50s. The tune evoked a wide-open America, the sort of James Dean lone-ranger imagery both terribly beautiful and terribly sad. “I’ll keep rolling along / Deep in my heart is a song,” Smith slowly sang. “Here on the range I belong / Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.”
“The Wayward Wind” continued the home-on-the-range vibe. Gogi Grant had a number-one hit with the tune in 1956. As on most of the songs, Smith was accompanied by Jesse on piano, Michael Campbell on xylophone and her longtime compatriot Lenny Kaye on guitar. The latter two came together for a cowboy solo before Kaye took center stage (figuratively) on a cover of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”
Patti sat cross-legged on the wooden stage while Kaye plucked the childlike folk melody with Jesse and Campbell accompanying. “High up above my eyes could clearly see / The Statue of Liberty / Sailing away to sea / And I dreamed I was crying,” he sang at the end of the song. Then, with a few nods of his head he masterfully segued into a bare-bones rhythm over which Smith projected Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus,” a poem about Lady Liberty herself.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fameAfter the night’s only rock and roll moment (a “Power to the People” sing-along), Smith opened the encore by reading Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl.” “Holy! Holy! Holy!” she chanted. “The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!” As one “holy” built to another, the cascade of images ushered in the evening’s most powerful moment. Like a good rock singer, Smith built the poem to a shouted crescendo before winding it down with the one final line: “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul! “
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles.
It would have been a powerful way to end the night, but Smith had one more cover to get out of her system. The foursome on stage took on the Everly Brothers with a grinning “Bye Bye Love.” If Frank did in fact hear that song as he drove across the country, he couldn’t have smiled wider than the crowd at the Met. He couldn’t have smiled wider than Patti Smith.
Reading: notebook, April 1971
Reading: Events of ’55 and ’56 [Jesse Smith on piano]
Song: “Trampin’” [Jesse on piano]
Reading: “I Hear America Singing,” by Walt Whitman [Jesse on piano, Michael Campbell on xylophone]
Reading: “A Blessing,” by James Wright
Reading: “combe,” by Patti Smith [Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone]
Song: “Beneath the Southern Cross”
Reading: Excerpt from Here Is New York, by E.B. White
Reading: Excerpt from The Western Lands, by William S. Burroughs
Song: “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (Kate Smith cover) [Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone, Lenny Kaye on guitar]
Recitation: “Mag,” by Carl Sandburg
Song: “The Wayward Wind” (Gogi Grant cover) [Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone, Kaye on guitar]
Song: “An American Tune” (Paul Simon cover) [Kaye on vocals and guitar, Jesse on piano, Campbell on xylophone]
Reading: “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus
Song: “Ghost Dance” [Jesse on piano, Campbell on guitar, Kaye on guitar]
Song: “People Have the Power” [Jesse on piano, Campbell on guitar, Kaye on guitar]
Reading: “Footnote to Howl,” by Allen Ginsberg
Song: “Bye Bye Love” (Everly Brothers cover) [Jesse on piano, Campbell on guitar, Kaye on guitar]