‘O, frabjous day!’ Nonsense verse set to music at Pittsford’s Maclure Library


TED WESLEY (LEFT) and Steve Spensley (right) presented a musical evening of Victorian “nonsense” verse by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear at the Maclure Library in Pittsford last Thursday. Mr. Wesley’s Americana-flavored arrangements gave an unexpected twist to the absurd High Victorian language of these two famous authors.

PITTSFORD—A strange brew it was, this mash-up of High Victorian poetry and Americana music: the “nonsense” verse of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear set to the country twang of acoustic guitar, dobro, and fiddle.  But the improbable marriage of these two seemingly incompatible genres worked, creating a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the Maclure Library in Pittsford on Thursday, March 28.  And we had Ted Wesley and Steve Spensely to thank for it.

The arrangements were Mr. Wesley’s.  Well-known poems like Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky” (from Through the Looking-Glass, the 1871 sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) and Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” (1870) lost a good deal of their “veddy British” starch when sung to folk and blues accompaniment.  In fact, in the hands of Mr. Wesley and Mr. Spensely, these poems shed much of their English preciousness and started to sound more like Appalachian folk tales.

Mr. Wesley is clearly a great fan of both Carroll and Lear and took obvious delight in the authors’ wordplay.  Absurdity, whimsy, and illogicality are all hallmarks of the verse. Singing and playing in a straightforward, finger-picking style reminiscent of Pete Seeger, Mr. Wesley savored the strange language and sing-song rhymes.  And Mr. Spensely, accompanying some pieces on the fiddle, often couldn’t hide a sly smile as he listened to his musical partner recite these whimsical poems.  Mr. Wesley even got the audience to sing the refrains of Lear’s “Calico Pie” and “The Jumblies.”  

It will be very difficult to read these poems now and not hear them recited with a twang.

Anyone interested in hearing Mr. Wesley can find him on YouTube under “Brother Teed.”  Some of the arrangements he performed on Thursday can be found on his YouTube channel.

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