My brother was a beatnik. There’s only one problem: he was a beatnik in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, not San Francisco or New York. In Baton Rouge, it was easy to be a coon hunter or a bass fisherman, but beatniks were a rare bird in a big swamp dominated by jambalaya, Cajun music, LSU football, and those smoke-belching chemical plants on the river whose workers would occasionally venture down to South Baton Rouge where we sissies lived for the pleasure of beating our asses.
Still, my brother did his best to rebel. A college sophomore, he’d study all day and work at his library job for a few hours and then drift down to one of the two beatnik hangouts off of Third Street, and then he’d come back and recount his evening to me, who was still in high school. The beverage of choice in those hangouts was strong black coffee served in Navy surplus mugs—espresso hadn’t crossed the Atlantic yet. There were “chicks” at the venues he frequented, and “cats,” too.
There were even, in the language of the day, “spade cats,” meaning, not neutered felines, but laid-back brothers who favored the same berets and turtlenecks the white boys did. This was a bigger deal than it might sound. Integration had been the law of the land for several years, but if you think that meant that blacks and whites mixed freely in South Louisiana, you’ve got another thought coming.
I wanted to be everything my brother was: curious, hardworking, socially and politically advanced. I was as clueless as the average fifteen-year-old and maybe a little more so: I’d suffered from both asthma and a mild case of polio that kept me out of school when I was a kid, so I lacked the self-confidence and people skills of most of my peers. Too, we lived on a ten-acre spread four miles outside of the city, which meant that my companions were not worldly sophisticates but the farm animals I cared for. And my brother.
Happily, my parents had converted a carport to a one-bedroom apartment where he and I lived. At the time, I marveled at my parents’ generosity. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the separate dwelling was for their benefit, not ours. The main house was tiny, and by exiling us to one twenty yards away, my parents sheltered themselves from the raucousness that only young men can get up to.
In the garçonnière, as it was called fancifully , my brother and I listened to music, argued, cleaned our firearms (we were farm boys, after all), swapped jokes, swapped books. One night my father came out to bid us good evening, and he tapped disapprovingly the cover of Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa, which featured a Gauguin painting of a bare-breasted Tahitian girl. This is a cheap come-on, he said. Man, you don’t know what you’re talking about! my brother exploded. This is Margaret Mead, man! Who’s that, said our dad. Aw, man, shouted my brother. You’re like . . . don’t you know . . . aw, man!
My father stormed back to the big house, and my brother slipped into his beatnik attire and headed out into the welcoming night. He came back three or four hours later, reeking of the clove cigarettes that the cats and chicks smoked. Years later, I went to grad school in Baltimore. There was a big McCormick factory on the city’s outskirts, and if the wind was right on the day the factory ground its spices, my campus was bathed in the most delicious odors one might imagine. I’m sure the other students thought of the holiday season and the baked goods their mothers made. I thought of my brother.
Believe it or not, one of the beat venues he frequented was called The Black Hole of Calcutta. It remains to be seen why the owner named his establishment after an eighteenth-century Indian prison so crowded that 123 of its 146 prisoners died in a single night. Then again, it was the Beats’ job to stick it to the man. What did you think he was going to call it, the Rainbow Room?
Back on the farm, my brother clued me in to the poetry of Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, existential philosophy, and a music form that was alien to us, jazz. My parents had played Carmen and “The 1812 Overture” to us when we still lived in the main house. And once we moved out to the garçonnière, we immersed ourselves in Brenda Lee, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Elvis. But jazz was something new. It was coastal. It was hip. It was what beatniks listened to.
We listened to Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane. But the recording that made the biggest impact on me was a tune by someone who is largely ignored today. "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" is a jazz instrumental composed and recorded on the Fantasy Records label by Vince Guaraldi. It won a Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition in 1963. On at least some copies of the album, the title appeared as "Cast Your Faith to the Wind” thanks to a printing error.
Care to give it a spin? Click here: Cast Your fate to the Wind
Catchy, yes? At least the first 50 seconds are. But at the 51" mark, there’s a tonal shift as bracing as a blast of strong black coffee served in a Navy surplus mug. What happened to those arpeggios, those beautiful notes soaring and falling and soaring again like starlings over the patch of earth where our horses and sheep grazed?
The bridge that arrives halfway through “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is startling, to say the least. It’s also ugly, or it was to me when I first heard it. And unlike the bridges in the pop and rock songs we listened to, it goes on for a full third of the piece. When the bridge ends at 1'57", the pianist begins to play the same two notes over and over again. As he repeats them exactly sixteen times, he sounds like a man who has grown impatient with the new place his song has gone to and is trying to figure out where to take it next. Aha! he says to himself and then returns to the lilting notes with which he began.
The bridge of a song can work in one of two ways. In his memoir My Cross to Bear, Gregg Allman says, “The bridge from the music to the third verse is when you want to be different, but you don’t want to go all the way from A to Z. You want something that contrasts things a little—kind of like matching a shirt with a pair of pants.”
It sounds as though Allman is talking about the typically 32-bar song, often called the AABA form; here the first two verses (the As) are identical musically while the bridge (the B section) is a simple modulation that remains harmonically open and thus prepares for the return of the final verse.
Okay, but the bridge in “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” isn’t a pair of pants. If they were clothes, the two parts of the song, the beginning/end and the bridge between them, would be a pinafore and a scuba outfit. Or a bikini top and a kilt. A smoking jacket and lederhosen. The front half of a horse costume and—.
Okay, you get the idea. Which brings us to the second way a bridge can operate. In a short video called “How Taylor Swift Writes a Love Song” that appeared in The New York Times, Swift’s producer, Jack Antonoff, says (and I’m paraphrasing here) that when you’re driving along in your car, you’re seeing mountains and trees and scenery and mountains and trees and scenery and then suddenly you go through a tunnel and you say whoa! And then you pop out, and there are the mountains and trees and scenery again.
That’s what happens in “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” or at least the Vince Guaraldi version of it. The song has been covered by artists in a wide range of genres, including both male and female solo vocalists (a lyricist named Carel Werber added sappy words at one point) as well as pop, folk, rock groups and many other instrumental performers. But the version that reveals the most about how bridges do or don’t work is the 1965 cover by Sounds Orchestral.
Here’s how that one sounds: Cast Your Fate to the Wind (by Sounds Orchestral)
At the 51" mark of this version, the song just keeps going. There’s no aural assault on the listener’s ears. Oh, sure, there’s a slight modulation, but nothing like the 180̊ turn that distinguishes the Guaraldi original. And it isn’t long before some schmaltzy strings are added. As the Wikipedia article on the Guaraldi version says, the Sounds Orchestral arranger “redirected the song away from much of the jazz influenced midsection to more of a nightclub sound.”
In a magazine called Rebeat, music writer Sally O’Rourke is even harsher: “Guaraldi’s middle section was all venturesome, bold improvisation, a clattering of notes symbolizing the ecstatic freedom of letting go. Sounds Orchestral irons out the original’s idiosyncrasies in favor of a melodic, blissful gliding. Whereas Guaraldi’s idea of casting your fate to the wind is absolute and existential, Sound Orchestral’s doesn’t get much more reckless than ordering a third martini.”
You might not be surprised to learn that the dumbed-down Sounds Orchestral version of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” ranked #10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart, whereas the Vince Guaraldi original only made it to #22.
But it wasn’t until I heard the Sounds Orchestral version that I realized why I liked the original so much more. As with a poem, there’s a some-assembly-required aspect to a piece of music. I had to bring more when I listened to the original, which means I took more away.
And what I took away is that beauty is overrated. In the opera world, the phrase “beauty trap” refers to the danger a director faces when she is put off by the darker aspects of a work and is tempted to emphasize its prettier parts. But opera is filled with slavery, incest, failed love, sexual betrayal, murder, and divas leaping to their deaths from the parapets of ancient fortresses. So is life. And so, in its way, is jazz.
So I cast my faith to the wind. I stopped believing in ease, in perfection. Edmund Burke says the beautiful is inferior to the sublime because the former is merely “smooth and polished” whereas the later is “rugged and negligent.”
I didn’t know it from the shelter of the garçonnière, but the times were about to get rugged and negligent. At home, lunch counters were about to be integrated. Abroad, a brushfire Asian war was all set to blaze up into an inferno that wouldn’t burn out for a decade. In music, the charts were dominated by Bobby Vinton, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Tillotson, and other traffickers in softcore self-pity porn. But Bob Marley, Patti Smith, and MC5 were on their way, and the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and Marilyn Manson weren’t far behind.
I had seen—no, I had heard the future.
David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University and is the author of Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which the Times Literary Supplement of London called “a hymn of praise to the emancipatory power of nonsense.”