Sail on, Oh Ship of State!

Claude McKay led an outsiders’ life, Allen Ginsberg became a near celebrity bohemian whose outsider status changed over his life. The author of today’s poem in our Independence Day series was more well-known than Ginsberg in his day, and he was as far from being an outsider as any American poet could be. At one time, as many knew and read his poems as Edgar Guest’s, and he was a much better versifier.

So, do you know today’s poem from the above title, or from the name of the longer work from which it’s excerpted, “The Building of the Ship?”   It’s highly unlikely that you would. The American writer Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went from being the stuffy square’s square, the kind of writer that Modernists didn’t want to be, to a forgotten man, the writer that no one remembers even to reject. He was a civic poet, a poet’s role that no longer exists in white America. Along with a handful of other men, most of whom he knew, he sought to create an American poetry in the first half of the 19th century when the American experiment was still new. After all, when he was born in 1817, many who celebrated July 4th were around for the July 4th!   And for much of his life Longfellow lived in a house that George Washington had lived in while commanding the American Revolutionary War troops.

Longfellow_National_Historic_Site,_Cambridge,_Massachusetts

George Washington lived here, and later so did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And a child named Darby Vassall. Haven’t heard of that last one? Read on.

 

In 1855, an elderly man visited that house where he had been born in 1769, meeting with Longfellow there. The man’s name was Darby Vassall, and this was the nature of his birth: he was born to enslaved Afro-Americans owned by the owners of that big house, which made him a slave by law from birth. When the Revolution came, his masters sided with the British, and so after the Battle of Bunker Hill, the owners skedaddled off to safer British-controlled territory. This left the house available for the new Revolutionary Army’s commander, General Washington, as spoils of war. Washington left his short-term smaller quarters and went to the big house to move in.

And here’s the story Darby Vassall liked to tell about meeting The Father of Our Country. There he was, six years old, and the revolution had by accident empirically freed him. He was swinging on the gate of the very house Longfellow now lived in, a time-honored childhood pastime then and now (see also sutures and Colles’ fracture.) General Washington, impressively tall for his time, and like the house’s absent owners, a rich slaveholder who traveled with an enslaved manservant, asked the boy if he would like to work for the new occupant, this man who’d become so honored and famous that people even now buy his portrait for something between 25 cents and a dollar.

Darby kept swinging, sizing up the tall white man, and then asked “How much are you paying?” Darby says Washington kind of lost interest in the conversation at that point—because, you know, slavery. He looked like a gentleman Darby later recounted, but “He was no gentleman.” Now that’s an Independence Day story!

We don’t know all Vassall told Longfellow about the house Longfellow now lived in, but the stories must have been interesting. The best-selling author blew off a meeting with his publisher to hear them all.

Have I forgotten to talk about Longfellow’s poem? No, this is another poem for our July 4th series. It comes at the end of a much longer poem Longfellow published in 1850, one that less than nobody reads today. The entire “The Building of the Ship”  is an allegorical story of a venerable ship builder* who with the help of a crew including a younger apprentice builds a ship for a merchant, more magnificent than any the builder has ever built. While building the ship, the apprentice and the master ship builder’s daughter fall in love, and the old master promises that on the day the ship launches his daughter and the apprentice will be wed. After many supple verse lines detailing the construction of this ship,** it’s complete and it launches with a epithalamium in which the new and lovely ship is embraced as a bride by the timeless, older, gray sea.

If the poem ended there it’d remain a curio of interest to scholars today, a romance in a European style adapted with distinctive American details and accomplished in English verse with a difficult rhyming scheme that never grates or seems fake, the sort of thing that is easier to do in French or Italian.***  But Longfellow had an envoi of sorts. The ship, as all man-made things do, would eventually wear out and come to a wrecked end. A downbeat, look-at-oneself-through-the-grave warning that would also not be out of place in romanticism.

This whole poem, along with that ending was sent to the publishers.

Then Longfellow called it back. He had a revision, with an entirely new ending. You can read the old ending and the story of the last-minute revision here. Not only is the new ending upbeat, it seemed to retroactively change the poem that proceeded it. That boat-like-a-bride thing was still there, but the ship was named “The Union,” and in those manifests of the things that made the ship, the entire young country seems to be the source. The Union becomes not just a marital union, it becomes the United States.

Here’s where that civic poet role comes into play. In the dozen years leading up to the Civil War, the delicate balance of slavery’s evil in a democratic country was becoming harder and harder to keep from spilling, the compromises seeking to keep the country in existence more and more difficult to negotiate. Longfellow’s new envoi, the one that I perform today, may seem anodyne if considered as an abstract statement of patriotism, but in 1850 it was a considered second-draft meant to say that ideals of the American experiment should continue, needed to continue, because those ideals, those plans, however imperfectly applied are contagious (in a good non-Covid-19 way). Enough for a small 6-year-old to stand up to Washington for example.

Now if we are to consider inspirational Afro-American patriotism, the best story that is likely not true is that Winston Churchill once quoted in a public speech Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,”  a Black man’s valiant ode to self-defense written after the deadly “Red Summer” of 1919, but then applied during the darkest days of Great Britain standing against Nazi-occupied Europe. No one has such a transcript or recording. But there is  a recording of Churchill reading a section of the abolitionist**** Longfellow’s envoi during that time in a speech of endurance in 1940.

 

 

Maybe the strangest thing about this ship and it’s sailing on, even as the maker of the poem has slipped away from public consciousness, was “Sail on, O Ship of State”  being quoted in Leonard Cohen’s “Democracy,”  his excellent ode to the need to continue the American experiment, however flawed, because it’s flawed.

The player gadget to hear my performance of Longfellow’s “Sail On, Oh Ship of State”  is below. I’ll note that my performance has some flaws that I’m accepting for now in order to get this out in a timely manner, but the spirit is there. Happy 4th of July though it be just one date. May freedom and independence come to all of us. The revolution is plural.

 

 

 

 

*Though Longfellow lived and wrote much of his work in Cambridge Massachusetts, he was born and educated in Maine, and even at this late hour he probably vies with Stephen King and Edna St. Vincent Millay for the title of most well-known writer from Maine. Maine was a shipbuilding center in the 19th century and so the poems extended allegory of shipmaking was local color to Longfellow.

**I’m no expert here, but those who know about early 19th century American shipbuilding seem to feel that Longfellow got the details of ship design choices and construction right.

***Many prosody theorists think that rhyming English poetry is a mistake, as we have many fewer rhyming word-endings than other European languages. Longfellow’s poetry may not be to modern tastes, but one thing he did have was a non-forced and impressive “flow” in the hip-hop/rap sense.

****Among the favorable reviews from abolitionists: Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of “The Building of the Ship”  “The most complete and artistic which he ever wrote.” Lincoln was said to have quoted the envoi lines in private to his secretary as the Civil War broke out—and broke down in tears before he could finish them.

The Stare’s Nest at My Window

I’ve done a number of William Butler Yeats poems here over the years as part of this project. We might agree that occurred because his words on the page just demand to be sounded. But there’s another side to Yeats that attracts too. He can write about political subjects with that same lyrical voice.*

One potential problem with political poetry is that a poet may not share the reader’s political stance, and while Yeats later dalliance with Fascism seems less ardent than Ezra Pound’s stronger convictions, the excellence of a poet’s lyrical gifts can’t save all examples.

Where Yeats succeeds in his political poetry, it’s often when he’s expressing complex moments of political disappointment or even disaster. This is properly the lyric poet’s area: the form where poetry isn’t about ideas but the experience of ideas.  When Yeats does this the details that led to these moments are sometimes sketched in, but the poem can succeed even if one knows nothing about them.**

After all, every person with a cause eventually knows days when the cause seems damaged, perverted or defeated.

Today’s Yeats poem is a case in point. In my parochial ignorance I knew nothing about the events of the Irish Civil War of 1922. Reading a bit about it could add some more resonance to the harrowing tale Yeats tells in this poem taken from a short sequence of poems he wrote that year about the conflict, but I don’t think the reader needs  to know those details for the poem to be powerful.

The poem has a central image, referred to in a refrain at the end of each stanza: honey bees and starlings*** are both nesting in the deteriorating brickwork of the place Yeats is staying in Ireland during this civil war, symbolizing those Irish factions fighting. Yeats seems to stand with the honey bees, which I read as the industrious, pragmatic, and fruitful symbol. The starlings are only raising their own brood in the same wall crevices, but from what I understand the starlings of the British Isles are somewhat of a nuisance bird, lacking in beauty and melodious song.****  Note too the detail that the starlings are being fed “grubs and flies.” Maybe the starlings aren’t evil, but what they’ve been given to subsist and grow on isn’t portrayed as lovely, a thought echoed in the final stanza.

Thoor Ballyee (Yeats Tower)

Not quite an ivory tower. Yeats had bought this old castle tower in disrepair. This page says they are still trying to repair it.

 

So, written in the sorrow of a civil war in his freshly independent country, Yeats’ plea is for a time when the chippering and tweeting loudmouths will eventually give way to those who may one day make his country prosper, though they will do so building in a country that has been emptied and hollowed out by the current disaster. That’s not a political platform, but it is an experience  that you and I may resonate with now.

Musically I didn’t stint on the discordant effects this time. Despite spending a few days with this one, it may take more time and listens for me to decide if I did right by Yeats with it. The full text of the poem is here if you’d like to read along, and the player gadget to hear my music and performance is just below.

 

 

 

*Although Yeats wrote about a variety of subjects, it’s easy to find him fitting into the same bag as other poets seeking to reform their culture out from under colonialism. In that effort he may be more of a cultural nationalist than a functioning politician (despite his eventual term in the Irish legislature), but this concern was central to his art.

**That said, one of the most popular posts here over the years has been this one about the exact issue and persons behind the Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”

***Yeats chose to use an archaic name for the common starling: “stare.” Yeats claimed the name was still in use in Western Ireland, but it still seems to be a deliberate choice . Stare does give him more rhyming words, but I also wonder if Yeats was thinking of punning undercurrents of stare as in looking—looking as in out his Irish window at his vision for a new independent Ireland; and “stair” as in a climb toward a higher, more perfect purpose than centuries of colonial exploitation followed by civil war. Or even “state.”

****Despite the bird’s little-liked vocalizations, starlings can learn and repeat other sounds in their environment. The best story I came upon in looking for information on why Yeats might have chosen the starling for his poem was the tale of the composer Mozart’s pet starling who could sing Mozartian passages. The starling’s discontinuous song has also been posited as an inspiration for Mozart’s famously odd-ball A Musical Joke” (K. 522)

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)

Here’s a hopeful song written by a worried man during the great trauma of the American Civil War.

Those who’ve followed along on this blog in 2018 will know that I’ve performed several pieces with words written by that man, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’ve written about his once great fame and his steep fall from poetic fashion, but I’ve written little about his eventful personal life.

longfellows house in winter

Not all of what it seems: a picture postcard scene of Longfellow’s home during the Civil War.

 

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, there could be no doubt on which side Longfellow would be on. To the extent that Longfellow was political as a writer, he was resolutely against the institution of slavery. Longfellow was also philosophically a pacifist, but even before the war he was aware of the cost Abolitionist convictions could bring. His closest friend, Charles Sumner, a U. S. Senator and another Abolitionist, was sitting at his desk on the Senate floor in 1856 when three southern congressmen launched a planned assault on him. The leader of the crew beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a walking stick, while the other two held off any who rose to try to stop the assault, one brandishing a pistol to keep help at bay. Sumner was so badly injured from the attack he was unable to resume his Senate duties for three years after the attack.

By the spring of 1863, the Civil War over the maintenance of slavery was now two years old. No one knew how long it would continue or what the outcome would be, and once more someone close to Longfellow would feel its blows. Longfellow’s 17-year-old son Charley, who had firmly resolved his own feelings about the war, snuck out of the family home and made his way to Washington to join the Union army. In November of that year, his unit was reconnoitering around a Virginia location called New Hope Church. They found what they were looking for. A southern bullet ripped through Charley Longfellow’s torso sideways, just nicking his spine. Luck that, and luck that he was able to endure and survive a painful evacuation on a wagon and the woeful state of battlefield trauma care in his time. Over half-a-million fellow soldiers didn’t.

So, a month before Christmas, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was searching the maze of makeshift hospitals and camps in Washington until he found his wounded son. Son found, by Christmas the Longfellows could return home for further recuperation.

Today “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”*  if listened to casually may pass as just another carol, an obligatory musical evocation of some cheerful pealing on a winter’s holiday. But to the poet who wrote these words that Christmas, and to the nation torn apart, that he and his audience were part of, this was not merely another generalized Christmas card.

I wrote a couple of hundred words, meaning to put them here next, starting to say, preaching about, what Longfellow said in his poem—but Longfellow says what he needed to say pretty well and clear for an unfashionable poet. Maybe that “clear” thing is part of what is unfashionable, but despair shared and hope earnestly put forward is  a gift.

The player gadget below will let you hear “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day (Christmas Bells)”  as I performed it. To sharpen Longfellow’s point, I trimmed back the number of stanzas in his original poem and then again from the shorter number of verses usually sung in the hymn that was made from it. I also reharmonized the chord changes a little. Guitarists wanting to play this themselves can use this shared link to see the details of the open tuning and chord voicings I used for this. The modified tuning, with the two lowest strings on the guitar tuned down even lower, makes this very easy to play.

 

 

 

*When Longfellow’s poem was published the next year it was titled “Christmas Bells,”  but it’s now best known through the hymn/Christmas carol set to music by John Baptiste Calkin.

I Was Reading About Jesse James

When I was growing up and learning songs from Jerry Silverman’s folk songbooks, there was song called “Jesse James”  included in many collections and sung by a wide variety of singers—and any song that has been sung by the Kingston Trio and Nick Cave, by Van Morrison and the Pogues, by yes, by both Peter Seeger and Bob Seger, has to be the very definition of a “folk song.”

Pete SeegerBob Seger

Both these guys have sung thoughtful songs, but sometimes you need to think beyond the song yourself

 

Though “Jesse James”  takes some of its spirit from older English ballads celebrating legendary medieval populist outlaw Robin Hood, this American song is more about betrayal (James was killed by a gang associate in his own living room) and about telling us what an all-around bad-ass James was. We’re told he “killed many a man” (never why or how, though bravery is claimed) and that he robbed banks and railroads (but he “gave to the poor” and would “never rob a mother or a child”).

You can see how this sort of thing has a wide appeal. A tale of revenge on the rich and the powerful appeals to many, and banks and railroads were particular targets of late 19th and early 20th century rural populism, but the emotional core of the folk song “Jesse James”  is the betrayal and assassination.  No matter what the variation in the lyrics, there’s lots of mention of James’ cowardly assassin Robert Ford betraying the man who trusted him, shooting him in the back.

Woody Guthrie took “Jesse James’”  structure and melody and produced an incisive, though less popular, version of his own called “Jesus Christ”  which cast Jesus as a rebellious populist betrayed by a disciple—though it had to do without the “killed many a man” factor. So popular is the original “Jesse James”  ballad, that Guthrie likely knew that Jesse James’ action-hero rep would rub-off on his populist Jesus.

So, it was with interest that I followed up on the reality of Jesse James. One can assume that most heroes have feet of clay, portions of their behavior that show faults or inconsistency, but it turns out Jesse James doesn’t have feet of clay—the whole man is made of half-baked clay mixed with ample fresh dung as filler.
 
He’s a nasty piece of work. True, his character shows audacity, but that’s not the same thing as bravery. There’s no evidence I’m aware of that he ever killed an armed man who was opposing him, but lots of connections to killings of prisoners and bystanders. It was somewhat true that seeking cash through his robberies was a side-point to him, but his main motivation was to extend, defend, or to restore human slavery, or to take broad revenge on those who sought to end his career seeking those aims.

If there’s a defense for his actions, it would be some listing of the bad things done by his opponents, but then monsters often breed monstrous actions against them. It’s an argument against monsters, not a defense of the actions themselves.

Today’s piece “I Was Reading About Jesse James”  starts by asking you to think about this. I thought about trimming the piece’s instrumental coda shorter, but I have left it in. Consider the last half to be time for you to begin to ask those questions yourself. To hear the LYL Band ask those questions to music, use the player below.