On Writing: The scattering afield – a personal essay

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

—W.B. Yeats



Neil Young’s 1996 album Broken Arrow (with his garage band, Crazy Horse) ends with a live cover of Jimmy Reed’s 1959 rock classic, “Baby What You Want Me to Do.” Neil and the boys are playing a small club, some secret venue where they can let down their famous hair and rock out in a space where they can feel it.

It’s a brilliant ending to an album that seems scattered at times, but maybe that’s the big idea behind the album. One of the songs is even called that: “Scattered.” Neil sings:

I’m a little bit here a little bit there

a little bit scattered everywhere

I’m a little bit up I’m a little bit down. . . .


Just like Jimmy Reed:


I’m goin’ up I’m goin’ down

I’m goin’ up down down up

Anyway you want to let it roll

Yeah yeah yeah


But the best thing about this live recording isn’t the band. Or it isn’t just the band. The recording itself seems scattered, unfocused, made from a single audience mic that gathers up all the scattered noises of the barroom. You can hear everything: the music, the band, the whistles and applause, the random conversations, laughter, clinking bottles and glasses, chairs and tables. You can even hear the size of the room. Everything.

And then, about four minutes into the song, Neil lays into his 1953 Les Paul—loud, raw, beautiful. The band is really cooking now, and the scattered noises fall into the rhythm, into a natural sympathy with the music. You can hear the audience listening intensely.

As the music starts to happen, the audience starts to happen too. In an epiphany-like moment we hear the audience suddenly become part of the song—not just passive auditors, but a necessary part of the equation, something the music doesn’t happen without.

Baby what you want me to do? The song answers its own question. How could I not be here for you? How could I happen without you?



In the early 20th century, American musicologist Frances Densmore traveled around the nation with one of Thomas Edison’s newfangled wax cylinder recording devices, lugging the bulky equipment with her to record Native American songs in their tribal settings. Densmore’s achievement is formidable all the way around, but she recorded one song that stands out—a sacred song of the Red Lake Ojibwe (aka Chippewa) tribe in Minnesota that Densmore titles “The Noise of the Village.”

The words of this remarkable song are frequently anthologized as a poem in collections of Native American poetry and represented as if the song were a kind of haiku—the short imagistic poem that American poet Ezra Pound popularized in modernist poetics:


Whenever I pause,

the noise

of the village


But the song is nothing like haiku, and making it look that way is an unconscionable act of literary colonialism where Anglo-European literary culture (itself appropriating an Asian tradition) imposes itself on Native American song. (Representing the song like this also exposes some dubious parochial assumptions about what’s poetry and what’s not.)

On Densmore’s recording, the words of the song are repeated over and over, interspersed with what jazz singers call “scat singing” and linguists call “non-lexical vocables”—rhythmic nonsense syllables à la hip hop, do-wop, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and even Shakespeare with a hey nonny nonny, and rhythmic expletives à la Jimmy Reed’s “yeah yeah yeah.”

As transcribed in Densmore’s book Chippewa Music (1913), the original Ojibwe words are represented phonetically with the translation glossed for each word separately at the bottom of the page. Here are the Ojibwe words followed by a literal translation (with parentheses around the expletive syllables, which I translate as familiar pop idioms):


a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) (a bu) de bwewe odena a nina niba (yu se) wiyan (e) a nina niba (yu se) wiyan


Whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah) whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah)

Whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah) (Oh baby) the noise of the village whenever I (oh yeah) pause (yeah) whenever I (oh yeah) pause


However the song is presented, the words are stunning. Imagine the songwriter, busy at some task. He pauses to take a break, and as his concentration relaxes, all the sounds of the village around him come rushing back into his consciousness, all the scattered noises of the community that engenders his labor and his songs.

And his identity too. Busy at his task, engrossed in what he’s doing, he’s invisible to himself. But as he relaxes he becomes aware of himself again and in the same moment becomes aware of all the noises of the village around him. He couldn’t miss the connection. How could I happen without you?

The songwriter then takes this epiphany and turns it into a song that, in the singing, becomes another one of the noises it celebrates.

And that’s culture—poetry, rock and roll, writing, all of it: the sound of the village celebrating the sacred, scattered sounds of ourselves happening.



And I think I’m a kind of scattering, too. I know I feel that way sometimes, some days more than others. A little bit here, a little bit there. Michelle will tell you.

And writing this column scatters my scattered self around. Jimseed. Me scattering myself into the world and becoming myself in the scattering. This is me happening.

And isn’t that all of us? We scatter ourselves around, things that happen. We don’t happen for long—“Poor passing facts,” the poet Robert Lowell calls us; “Poor foolish things that live a day,” says Yeats—but we do happen.

In his recent, posthumously published book on Heidegger, the late American philosopher John Haugeland contends that, paradoxically, we only emerge as individuals when we take responsibility for a collective way of being in the world. We happen to each other and for each other. And we don’t happen without each other.

We’re becoming ourselves in scattering ourselves afield, Johnny Appleseeds all.

How could I happen without you?

• Jim Hale can be reached at www.jimhalewriting.com.

More in Neighbors

A male pink salmon attacks another male with a full-body bite, driving the victim to the bottom of the stream.(Photo by Bob Armstrong)
On the Trails: Eagle Beach strawberries and salmon

A walk at Eagle Beach Rec Area often yields something to think… Continue reading

Adam Bauer of the Local Spiritual Assembly of Bahá’ís of Juneau.
Living and Growing: Rúhíyyih Khánum, Hand of the Cause of God

Living in Juneau I would like to take a moment to acknowledge… Continue reading

A calm porcupine eating lunch and not displaying its quills. (Photo by Jos Bakker)
On the Trails: Prickly critters here and afar

Prickles, thorns, and spines of some sort are a common type of… Continue reading

A female humpback whale Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve biologists know as #219 breaches in the waters near the park. When a whale breaches, it often leaves behind flakes of skin on the surface of the ocean. Scientists can collect sloughed skin and send it to a laboratory to learn about the genetics or diet of the whale. (National Park Service photo by Christine Gabriele, taken under the authority of scientific research permit #21059 issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service)
Alaska Science Forum: The welcome return of an old friend to Icy Strait

There was a time when Christine Gabriele wondered if she’d ever see… Continue reading

The Rev. Karen Perkins.
Living and Growing: Coping with anger, shock and despair after a loss

The last several Living and Growing columns have included reflections about death,… Continue reading

Sandhill cranes fly over the Mendenhall wetlands. (Photo by Gina Vose)
On the Trails: An uncommon encounter with Sandhill cranes

One sunny day near the end of August, a friend and I… Continue reading

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Living and Growing: Giving space for grief is healthy and grounded

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter… Continue reading

A rainbow spans North Douglas on Aug. 16. (Photo by Kelsey Riederer)
Wild Shots

To showcase our readers’ work to the widest possible audience, Wild Shots… Continue reading

The little blue stars of felwort flowers appear late in the season. (Photo by David Bergstrom)
On the trails: Out and about, here and there

On a foggy morning toward the middle of August, a friend and… Continue reading

Brent Merten
Living and Growing: The ugliness of death is made beautiful by Jesus

My wife and I recently took our grandkids camping at Eagle Beach.… Continue reading

A line of shoppers waits outside Centennial Hall during the Public Market in November of 2019. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Gimme a Smile: What are you waiting for?

Waiting is hard. There’s nothing fun about it, unless your mom has… Continue reading

Spheres and spinners ride a rainbow on a downtown wall on Aug. 13. (Photo by Denise Carroll)
Art in Usual Places

The Juneau Empire welcomes reader-submitted photos of art in unusual or unexpected… Continue reading