Allen Ginsberg Sings the Poetry of William Blake (1970)

There was once a time, if you can believe it, when Allen Gins­berg could take the poet­ry of William Blake, sing it in a record­ing stu­dio, and then MGM Records would release it as a long-play­ing album. I refer to the time, of course, of “the six­ties,” that half-myth­i­cal era that seems to have run from around 1966 to 1972. Smack in the mid­dle of the six­ties, thus defined, came this dis­tinc­tive release, Songs of Inno­cence and Expe­ri­ence by William Blake, tuned by Allen Gins­berg, record­ed in Decem­ber 1969 and released in 1970.


Every read­er famil­iar with Blake, of course, knows Songs of Inno­cence and of Expe­ri­ence as a book, an illus­trat­ed col­lec­tion of poems first self-pub­lished in 1789 and in 1794 re-issued and expand­ed as Songs of Inno­cence and of Expe­ri­ence Show­ing the Two Con­trary States of the Human Soul. This work of an 18th-cen­tu­ry poet cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion of the 20th-cen­tu­ry poet Gins­berg, and not just as read­ing mate­r­i­al; he came to believe that not only did Blake intend his words to be sung, but that he him­self could ren­der them faith­ful­ly in song — as well as play the piano and har­mo­ni­um in accom­pa­ni­ment.

You can hear hear the fruit of Gins­berg’s musi­cal-poet­ic recon­struc­tive labors at the top of the post, at the Inter­net Archive, or at PennSound, which not only offers each track indi­vid­u­al­ly but also its lyrics and some­times even links to the cor­re­spond­ing page from the orig­i­nal book at the William Blake Archive. When we think of six­ties-defin­ing albums, we think of Blonde on Blonde, Are You Expe­ri­enced?Sgt, Pep­per’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band, that sort of thing, and right­ly so, but a project like Songs of Inno­cence and Expe­ri­ence by William Blake, tuned by Allen Gins­berg speaks just as much to what became pos­si­ble in that artis­tic Cam­bri­an explo­sion of an era.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

Hear Allen Ginsberg’s Short Free Course on Shakespeare’s Play, The Tem­pest (1980)

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celes­tial Home­work”: A Read­ing List for His Class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”

Allen Ginsberg’s Last Three Days on Earth as a Spir­it: The Poet’s Final Days Cap­tured in a 1997 Film

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture as well as the video series The City in Cin­e­ma and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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  • mike hire says:

    It’s known that Blake actu­al­ly did sing some of his Songs ‘in pub­lic’, yet what songs were unnamed.

    Also, Ed Sanders with the Fugs was singing some of Blake’s Songs (1st album released in 65) before Gins­berg. Tuli of the Fugs might be one of the back­ground voic­es on AG’s album.

  • Louis Byron says:

    I went to hear Gins­berg sing & play the har­mo­ni­um in the ear­ly 1980’s. It sounds great in the­o­ry. In real­i­ty, it sound­ed like an ele­phant in labor. But we will still always love Allen.

  • Eric Nicholson (@Erikleo8) says:

    This is how to mur­der Blake’s vision­ary work!

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