Singing Whitman

Daniel Redman chants Leaves of Grass to tell the story of queer history.

One night late last summer, 55 people crowded into Daniel Redman’s modest San Francisco apartment in the Castro District. They were there to hear him chant Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Redman is a slight, 32-year-old San Francisco-based lawyer focusing on elder law and the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people—and a performance artist. Close to a decade ago, he first read Whitman’s work and felt such a strong affinity with it, especially with Whitman’s “powerful vision of queer history and community,” that he decided to set his poems to music. His performances blend the tradition of ecstatic music and Jewish prayer with the lilting, loping music of America’s passionate bard, an oddly resonant combination.“I discovered that Walt Whitman, the lonely, yearning lover in Leaves of Grass, accords with the Jewish heart,” he says.

Over the last seven years, Redman has built a growing reputation as a literary performance artist—his shows have taken him to the San Francisco Public Library, Rutgers University, and numerous synagogues and homes.

The audience—a mix of software engineers, filmmakers, poets, nonprofit workers, even a computational physicist—staked out their place on the floor or sat on benches. Redman, wearing a sweater over an Oxford shirt, his thick, curly hair and large oval glasses giving him a slightly professorial air, handed out hand-stapled, photocopied, three-by-five-inch Whitman hymnals.

Then he began. He held his arms still in front of him, hands cupped, rocked his body, and swung back his head, starting in on what would be an hour-and-a-half-long song comprising excerpts from Leaves of Grass. The first two excerpts—all of “Live Oak, with Moss” and the first four sections of “Calamus”—are arguably the most homoerotic poetry in Leaves of Grass, recounting the poet’s ultimately unhappy, socially fraught love affair with a man. These were followed by the first four sections of “Song of Myself” and the entirety of “Inscriptions.” Redman did not use a score or songbook—he memorized every word.

His voice slowed down and sped up, rising and falling in a minor key within a narrow range of pitch and notes. This created a rhythm amplified by his emphasis on the beats in Whitman’s poetry. At times every word was clearly enunciated and at others they ran together, spoken so fast that they became almost unintelligible. Both the unhurried and the quick pace ended dramatically when Redman got to a meaningful phrase; he drew out the notes, upping the intensity of the song.

His song was pensive and celebratory, similar in tone and rhythm to cantorial music. The words that a cantor slows down to stress might be God’s name or hallelujah, while the words of Whitman that Redman stresses are used to describe fervent emotions toward lovers or the desire to welcome all people across time within his embrace—to create a society in which difference is acknowledged and welcomed.

For example, in the section of “Live Oak, with Moss” where Whitman is bemoaning the loss of “the one I cannot content myself without,” Redman belts out the lines “I am ashamed – but it is / useless – I am what I am. / Hours of my torment – I / wonder if other men ever / have the like out of the / like feelings?”

Afterward, one woman in the audience told me she just let the words flow over her—an experience of language having its say. Another person thought the song sounded like a cross between old-world Yiddish speech and a modern auctioneer telling a story he absolutely needed to hear—the story of gay history, its telling becoming the act of experiencing queer community.

The next day over brunch, I talked with Redman more about his long, ongoing project of singing Whitman.

Let’s start with the basics. What drew you to begin composing songs for Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?

In 2006 I was home for winter break from the University of California at Berkeley law school when I decided to read Leaves of Grass from beginning to end for the first time. It had an immediate and powerful effect on me. As I read and reread, and thought about his work, I realized Whitman had a powerful vision of queer history and community. But at first, I just felt a sense of connection.

Over time, reading him led me to ask, what is our history? Who are our ancestors? Who are our descendants? In Leaves of Grass, Whitman answers these questions in a profound way. In the preface to the first edition, for example, he writes that one of his aims is to “dra[g] the dead out of their coffins and stan[d] them again on their feet.”

When did you decide you were ready to start performing?

After three years of working on this, I had only set three poems to music. I performed it for my partner at the time. He was very encouraging. I kept working at it, and at a monthly queer arts gathering called Art Fag Potluck in San Francisco, I sang the 12 poems I’d finished—about 20 minutes’ worth—and got an intensely positive reaction. Then one thing led to another. Someone at the performance introduced me to someone at a synagogue who was interested in hosting me. Someone at a dinner suggested so-and-so. And so on.

What’s your method of composing?

When I returned to law school from that break, I tried different ways of setting Leaves of Grass to music. (I had learned to compose as a child.) First I composed a song for voice and piano. It was horrible. Next, I tried composing a song as a choral work—that didn’t work either. I kept circling back to Whitman’s poetry, trying various things, and at some point I started drawing on Jewish musical traditions that had been so powerful to me.

When I’m composing a new section of Leaves of Grass, I sing the lines over and over rather than writing a score. If I don’t remember the melody, then I know that it’s not right musically. I also read the poems through many times in all the editions until I understand the poems.

Many of the poems have a topography to them—valleys and mountains, deserts and oases. For example, in “Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand,” Whitman pushes away his new lover again and again—for whose protection?—until finally, Whitman imagines a world in which that love could exist: “Here, to put your lips upon mine I permit you…” And just as quickly, Whitman returns to the reality of his contemporary world which is dangerous to queer people: “but these leaves conning, you con at peril…” The shape of Whitman’s fear, then hope, then resignation shapes the song, too.

How does your experience of Judaism and your Jewish identity inform this project?

Jewishness definitely informs how I think about the world and my queerness. While I began this project by drawing upon Jewish ecstatic musical traditions, that doesn’t mean this is Jewish music. I refract Judaism through my queerness, and from that comes something new.

I was raised in a suburb north of Chicago as part of a Jewish family, but we weren’t particularly observant. But as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins I was drawn to a community of Orthodox Jews, and for four years I immersed myself in all aspects of Orthodox Jewish life and religious practice. After coming out, I gradually stopped being a part of the group, but not because someone had rejected me.

One of the many lovely things about your singing is its haunting quality. When you sang all of “Live Oak, with Moss,” I could feel the emotional intensity of Whitman’s solitude and yearning for his lover more strongly than if I’d read it as text. How do you view the relationship between the devotional intensity of Jewish liturgical traditions and your singing of Whitman?

 “Live Oak with Moss” is a collection of poems in which Whitman falls in love, becomes overwhelmed by it, and falls into complete despair as it falls apart. In the Jewish tradition, liturgical works can very powerfully express and direct profound feelings, such as sadness and joy. It’s the spiritual equivalent of metal filings lining up with a magnetic force. When I sing these songs, I feel that—certainly. But at the same time, my project is not at all about putting Whitman or Leaves of Grass on some altar and lighting candles.

If this project is expressing my devotion to anything, it’s a devotion to—to the queer first-person plural.

What do you think a queer first-person plural world looks like to Whitman?

To me it seems that Whitman is trying to create friendship across time. Queer community especially is really a community of friends. We don’t have blood ties to each other or some geographical motherland to call home. Friendship is all we’ve got. In reaching toward us, Whitman is pointing to a vision of community that could be created but that he acknowledged he couldn’t really understand, so he’s reaching forward to see if other folks—maybe us, maybe generations to come—could create it.

In your introductory remarks to your performance, you asked the audience a version of that question: what a queer worlda queer communitywould look like to them. You pointed out that throughout Leaves of Grass, especially in “Song of Myself,” Whitman continually invites others, including those in the future, to join with him in celebrating ourselves: “Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!” What do you think a queer community looks like?

Going back to the friendship idea, the power of Whitman wasn’t that he was some prophet or sage. If you read about his life, he was a messy queen. But that’s precisely what’s powerful about him. If Whitman were alive today and lived in San Francisco or any other place, we—as in everyday queer people—would know him. We’d be friends with him. He’d be trying to have sex with some of us. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman is saying that this fact of connection, of friendship, of community is sufficient and very beautiful.

Because really, who needs a prophet or a deity when you can have a friend?

See video of Redman peforming Whitman here.

Originally Published: January 14th, 2014

Emily Warn was born in San Francisco and grew up in California and Detroit. She earned degrees from Kalamazoo College and the University of Washington. Her full-length collections of poetry include The Leaf Path (1982), The Novice Insomniac (1996), and Shadow Architect (2008). She has published two chapbooks: The Book...

  1. January 15, 2014
     Kevin Simmonds

    Selah: "Because really, who needs a prophet or a deity when you can
    have a friend?" Yes & yes & why I made this short film about Daniel after
    hearing his performance at the main branch of the SF Public Library a
    few years back:

  2. January 16, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this article. It's encouraging to
    see people coming together to celebrate Walt Whitman,
    poetry and music!


  3. January 19, 2014

    Very encouraging! Naturally poetry and music should go

  4. January 22, 2014

    more than a quarter century ago, I sat around a fire and
    listened to a guy named Terry Wooten recite, from
    memory, sections of Leaves of Grass, in addition to
    reciting twenty plus poems by a dozen or so poets.

    before i sat at that fire, i hadn't thought about, much
    less loved, spoken word poetry. after that sitting-
    around, i haven't stopped loving the spoken word.

    i'm intrigued by the diversity of verbal interpretation
    of Whitman. Redman describes his connection to the poems
    with such passion. i'd love to hear him recite.

    but the final quote when coupled with the interview
    photo distresses me. "who needs a prophet or a deity
    when you can have a friend?" well, some people
    (billions, in fact) do believe in god, gods, or God.

    Daniel Redman's home is his home, a place he can
    decorate with any manner of grotesque art depicting
    Jesus. but Poetryfoundation should have been more
    sensitive to religious sensibilities. You should have
    published a photo of Redman other than the one back-
    dropped by the blue and freakish Crucified Christ.

  5. January 23, 2014
     Daniel Redman

    Thanks for your comment. My friend Peter Max Lawrence painted the crucifixion
    painting you're referring to. Marc Chagall depicted
    Jesus as blue or blue-tinted several times (as did El
    Greco). In addition, there is a long history in many
    traditions of depicting Jesus in a two-dimensional and
    stylized manner. To me, it's a powerful painting that is
    inspired by that lineage. Also--fwiw--Whitman wrote a
    powerful poem about Jesus that you can find here: