Today is May Day, the international labor day, so I spent it working, looking through poetry books for something about our lives of work. There’s less there than there should be I think, the world of work somehow not seeming as poetic as human love and desire or as sublime as the observation of nature and things of the spirit without any human sweat in it.
This lack leads me to admire poets who address this imbalance. And the first one that came to my mind turned out to be the one I ended up using today: Carl Sandburg. That Sandburg might come to mind for others too as a poet of labor probably didn’t help his reputation at the start of our current century. He doesn’t come by that classification lightly, having had a career as an itinerate worker and labor organizer before he began as a poet, and even while he was publishing groundbreaking works of early American Modernist poetry like his Chicago Poems in 1917, he had a second, less well-known life as a Socialist radical.
Carl clocking in in his later years when his day job was goat farmer
Somehow Sandburg survived both the post WWI and post WWII red scares without great harm to his reputation, but by late in the 20th century there was less interest in Modernists who wanted to write about work and labor issues. The bohemian fringe more or less looked at straight work as an unfortunate event*, and the academic establishment was more interested in aesthetic rigor and the ability to carry lightly evidence of a full-fledged college education for its poets.
Proletarian writing had been done already. Time to move on.
As I keep reminding you and myself, our current century is now old enough to vote, it’s approaching adulthood. It might want to re-evaluate those judgements the old century made about its youthful innovators.
So, for today, May Day, I took the opening to Sandburg’s longer poem that gave its name to his 1920 collection Smoke and Steel and turned it into a labor hymn. “By this sign all smokes know each other.”
The player gadget to hear it is below. If you want to read the whole poem, or just read along to the opening section I used, the full text is here.
*as leading beat-generation scholar and theorist, Maynard G. Krebs put it in his famous essay “On Work, An Existential Examination” “Work!?”
Last post I rapidly traced poetry from the era of Homer and Sappho and the Confucian Odes, jumped to English language poetry and finally ended with early 20th century Americans. I traveled fast, and simplified much, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say this is a progression from poetry that was expected to be performed with music to a poetry that wasn’t. Widespread literacy and the printing press, and by the Modernist era, a desire to include complex allusions and layers of ambiguity all helped this progression along.
Today let’s start in the 20th Century in America and follow the songwriter’s side of things. Popular songwriting had become industrialized. Composers and lyricists churned out uncountable numbers—and first by sheet music and then by recordings, film, and broadcasts, these productions could be distributed widely. Barriers to entry were low in this business, but rewards for popular success were high. Lyricists came from a wide range of backgrounds—some were middle class, even college educated, but many were immigrants or descendants of recent immigrants for whom English was a fresh language.
As with any mass art or market, much of what they produced was forgettable, a job of work, their ears may have sometimes bent to the muse, but their hands were looking for a paycheck.
Poets and literary critics occasionally paid a little bit of attention to that work in their time. Lively arts and all, some notice was taken.* With the music inspired by Jazz, the cultural force of the music could not be denied, even if the words that came along with it might be condescended to.
Then, in the mid-1930s, a decision was made, outside of music and poetry—a political decision—that eventually changed the course of popular music lyrics. For political reasons both international and U. S. national, the Soviet Union-dominated international Comintern and the U. S. Communist Party decided to switch tactics from a more purist “only the Communist Party is the solution” stance to a popular front position, where anyone to the left of the then rising Fascist forces were considered valid allies.**
In the U. S. this led to such slogans as “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.” On a political level this meant that the Roosevelt New Deal wouldn’t be portrayed as capitalists pushing insufficient reforms to stave off the inevitable revolution, and that actual “card-carrying Communists” would be mixing more generally with socialists, liberals and centrists. But for our purposes, we need to look at how this played out in the cultural sector.
Popular arts, which could have been perceived as hopelessly compromised tools of the capitalist system, became more acceptable; but a more pure, folk expression that was seen as coming directly from and for the workers and the exploited, a music existing outside of the commercial infrastructure of entertainment, was even more ideal.
So here, twenty years before the “Great Folk Scare” of the 1950s were the roots of the folk revival.*** It’s in this pre-WWII period that Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie came of age and shaped their songwriting. Seeger was a Harvard drop-out and son of two musicologists.**** Guthrie was none of those things. The Popular Front meant that the likes of those two, and many others with high to low culture backgrounds, would mix it up.
My apologies to my Christian readers for posting this example of extraordinary Popular Front songwriting on Easter when it’s more a Good Friday kind of thing. Billie Holiday sings the harrowing “Strange Fruit.”
As songwriters this could have meant dour issue-of-the-month songs cleared by some central committee. And to be honest, each of them sang and wrote some of those, but both of them had Emersonian Individualist streaks.*****
And they listened too, had big ears. Afro-American music and musicians, isolated southern U. S. musicians who songs and styles were time-capsules of old British Isles tunes. Blues and “Hillbilly” music benefited somewhat from being a source and occasional fellow-traveler with this movement.
The Afro-American Harlem Renaissance is shaped by the gravitational pull of this political decision too. Civil Rights before the ‘30s was often aspirational, and though the folk traditions were honored before, this new emphasis on embracing popular and folk arts increased the interest and respect for them among an emerging new Afro-American cultural consensus.
Now we jump ahead again, it’s that un-named but important straddle decade of the late ‘50s to early 60s. Communist connections are poison. Illness had made Guthrie bedridden. Seeger is persevering outside of any first-tier commercial structure as a road-dog performer. “Folk Music” is now a commercial genre with a still bohemian/left-wing underground. Into this we inject the man who will expand the idea of what song lyrics will be allowed to do: Bob Dylan.
You don’t have to like Bob Dylan as a person, performer or songwriter to accept this truth: there are song lyrics before Dylan’s 1963-66 period and there are song lyrics afterward, but song lyrics are a completely different field after the change he proved was possible. This is why an artist as strong in his own right as Leonard Cohen can say in one of his last public statements: “Giving a Nobel Prize to Bob Dylan is like pinning a medal on Mt. Everest for being the highest mountain.”
But a Bob Dylan has causes, has a context in which he can happen. That choice Communist bureaucrats made for pragmatic political reasons in the mid-1930s led to a folk music scene 20 years later in which Afro-American blues and weird old folk music mixes with poetic Modernism inside the mind of one songwriter, and what comes out is strange and compelling.
Song lyrics don’t have to be a piece of work aiming for an established commercial target. Song lyrics don’t have to make clear front-to-back sense the first or the fifteenth time you hear them, they can mystify you and still have listeners. Songs with narrative elements don’t have to progress in a linear manner. Song lyrics can be about anything, can use any kind of imagery. Love songs can be ambiguous. Political points can be made metaphorically. You can combine different kinds of diction, even sample and reference various existing sources, and it doesn’t have to seem out of place or from the lack of original things to say.
One can point to song lyrics that did one or two of these things before Dylan, but after Dylan used many of them together and repeated that demonstration often, many songwriters wanted to try using any and all of these things, and their attempts caused other songwriters to do the same. A chain-reaction occurred.
Modernist poetry had done all these things already, and often—but Modernist poets didn’t write songs, and for the most part they didn’t read and perform their poetry charismatically. Some Beat poets, that faction of the Modernist movement that had vowed to remain resolutely bohemian, who had read their poems in front of jazz combos, recognized this was a different level of music combined with words. Allen Ginsberg heard a copy of Bob Dylan’s second LP in 1963. As the first side of that record moved inward toward the ouroboros groove in its middle, as “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” played, he says he wept. Did he weep, feeling he was now displaced? Did he weep because this not yet 40-year-old poet might be replaced by this just over 20 singer-songwriter? No.
He wept, with an outlook of gratitude, because “There’s a saying among the Buddhists. If the student is not greater than the teacher, then the teacher is a failure.”
A long excerpt from “A Hard Rain Is a-Gonna Fall” with Ginsberg’s statement cut in.
Good story. But this was far from the end of the matter. A great many important poets and critics didn’t feel Ginsberg, or any of his Beat cohort, were very good poets. Therefore, Ginsberg’s say-so didn’t make Dylan a “real poet.”
You can’t say songwriting accepted or didn’t accept Bob Dylan, because acceptance is too meager a word for what happened—he changed how songwriting worked. The question of poetry “accepting” Bob Dylan, or songwriters in general, is still open.
Will I ever answer the question in the title? I beg your patience. This is by far the longest piece ever published here, even though I’m skimming over a lot of things. In Part Three I’ll finally get down to the answer that makes the most sense to me.
For an audio piece today I’ll suggest this one, one of the rare times here that I perform my own writing, a live version of “On First Hearing Blonde on Blonde” by the LYL Band. The audio player is below. Thank you for reading and listening! Part Three, that should be the conclusion, comes soon.
*Decades after this era in 1990 literature professor Phillip Furia published his book The Poets of Tin Pan Alley which helped convince this fan of more “authentic” songwriters that these commercial lyricists were not without considerable art.
**As in the case I’ll make later regarding Dylan, please don’t let any personal feelings or judgements you may have regarding Communism or the Comintern blind you to the historical connections here.
***I can’t not mention one poet and musician who jumped the gun on this, Carl Sandburg, who published his important folk song collection American Songbag in 1927. And for length reasons, I’ve largely left out the 20th century development of Afro-American blues and jazz. Charlie Patton didn’t wait for the Comintern to get in touch with him to forge his new alloy of styles.
****One of his father’s prize students was Modernist composer Henry Cowell. His step-mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was in some opinions the most significant female American Modernist composer of the first half of the 20th century.
*****We can think of songs like “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Bells of Rhymey,” “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos,” or “This Land is Your Land” as exceeding requirements for that kind of song. Abel Meerpool’s “Strange Fruit” is an excellent example of a lyric, written as a song, that would stand alongside poetry intended for the page.
I’m going to move on up the countdown of the most liked and listened to pieces during the past summer, but first a short summary about what the Parlando Project does, and an even more compressed explanation of why we do it.
The Parlando Project combines various words, mostly written by others, most often poetry, with original music. I am Frank Hudson. I write, arrange, play, and record most the music here. I don’t do that because I’m a great composer, or even an average musician. I do this because it’s the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to create this much music this quickly.
Other musicians contribute parts, and another voice, Dave Moore, relieves you from hearing my voice every time. Ideally there’d be more pieces with more musicians, and more variety of voice; but such an ideal world would require a great deal of organization, maybe even funding and the organization it takes to seek that. The pieces could be better realized, but when I look at the history of such more professional and polished presentations, it seems likely that there would be many fewer pieces. Take a random walk through the archives on the right here: the Parlando Project is now marching toward 300 pieces combining those various words with music. I’m unaware of any not for profit group who’s made available anything like this many poetry plus original music encounters.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words. How can I wake them up and dress them in those other musical sounds that don’t speak in words? You’re listening here, you know that can be intriguing, and so I will not say more now on this.
Why do I do this? Because I’m still excited by those encounters. Most often these words have been designated to pages, and in some cases, little-read pages. They are the condensed observations of many human beings, potentially vivified by silent music there in the inky words.
Now let’s resume our countdown as we get to some of the pieces you liked and listened to the most these past three months.
4. The Destruction of Sennacherib. For around 100 years students in the English-speaking world usually got a strong dose of the British Romantic poets as part of literature classes: Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, Blake and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Here’s the weird thing about that: not a one of these men seem to be good classroom examples for young scholars. Messy, often foreshortened lives; lots of sex, drugs, and what was rock’n’roll before there were Afro-Americans with electric guitars and re-voiced saxophones.
Take this little piece, sure it’s a Bible story, but a field strewn with corpses isn’t exactly happy Schoolhouse Rock fun-time, regardless of the unstoppable flow of Byron’s verse even without adding the instrumental music.
3. Fire and Sleet and Candlelight.Elinor Wylie was heavily influenced by those British Romantics and lived through events that echoed the scandals of Shelly and Byron in her own foreshortened life. Did this help her compose this tale of a life as a series of troubled trials and tests? One could easily suppose this to be so. Still, this piece’s title and something of the life as a trial by fire narrative strongly references an old and pious English Christian folk-hymn, the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” Combining frightening with beautiful is not an easy thing to do, so it takes more than merely having the life-experience to create something like this.
This audio piece is an example of why I realize these pieces so often by playing all the parts myself. Actually collecting the equivalent of a chamber orchestra and a place to record them would take more than a full summer’s work alone.
2. Morituri Salutamus. There turned out to be a lot of daylight between the other pieces and the top two this past quarter. And this one is the greatest surprise, as its words are taken from a longer homecoming-speech-as-poem by that now most un-fashionable poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Still, I could relate to this section, which is the opposite of those romantic “live fast, die young, publish posthumously” proposals of the troubled romantics. “Morituri Salutamus” is the cry of an aged artist refusing to quit, hampered by unavoidable age instead of youthful self-sought excess.
I have no idea of the age-demographics of listeners here, so I don’t know if that was the hook for “Morituri Salutamus” this summer. Regardless of the pull of taking in experiences as wildly and widely as possible as a way to more intense artistic expression, I’ll admonish younger readers here that the primary duties of an artist are to survive and to actually do the work that survival allows. Like homecoming and graduation speeches in general, this matter is likely eye-rollingly obvious and simplistic to the bravest young listeners. That’s OK, I’ll be back tomorrow with the piece that was even more popular and modern than Longfellow.
Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl” reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.
“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.” The “Lyke Wake Dirge” is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as “Summer Is Icumen In.” As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to “Lyke Wake” in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.
To summarize “Lyke Wake,” once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, “Lyke Wake” favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.
This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. “Lyke Wake” is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of “Lyke Wake” with her “Up-Hill,” to give one example of how this could have been restated in modern English.
Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.
Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.
Tired of clattering swords making a racket at your castle?
Use this easy idea to store them securely.
So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,” presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.” As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her word-music undercuts the real pain and danger.
Wikipedia uses this picture to illustrate “Lyke Wake Dirge,” calling it “Lonely Soul.” I can only think of it as the back cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
I therefore tried to emphasize the sorrowful experiences of the words somewhat when performing this. For music I went with a fairly full-fledged orchestral-folk setting this time. The vocal and acoustic guitar is actually a “scratch part,” a quick recording used to lay the blueprints for later finished tracks, but due to recent events my voice has been out of commission for a few days, so I had to leave those parts in. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,” use the player below.
Musician jokes have a cruel streak, though most musicians love them.
“How can you tell if there’s a drummer knocking at your door?”
“Because his knocking speeds up and slows down, and he doesn’t know when to come in”
“Did you hear about the banjo player who played in tune?”
“Neither did I.”
“How do you get an electric guitarist to turn down?”
“Put sheet music in front of him.”
Here’s my favorite. A doctor, a lawyer, and a musician each win 100 million dollars in the lottery. The doctor is all smiles and says, “Oh, this is great! I don’t have to worry any more about arcane billing codes and insurance bureaucracy. I can just treat my patients!”
And the lawyer claps his hands on hearing, and says, “I’m going to just take all my cases pro bono and never again have to represent someone just because they can hire me.”
The musician though is downcast, he says, “Well, I guess I can keep gigging until the money runs out.”
The most popular piece for the Parlando Project this past Winter was Fenton Johnson’s “The Banjo Player.” Johnson’s poem is essentially another musician joke, but one elaborated with some telling details observed from Johnson’s early 20th Century life.
The banjo is an African-American instrument, something often forgotten in my time until a few folklorists made efforts to set things straight. Fenton Johnson, born in 1888, just one year after Papa Charlie Jackson, knew that world before the guitar picker became the bluesman.
Hype-man ad copy circa 1924 for the first ever to record self-accompanied blues .
Yes, he’s poking a little fun at his banjo player, but Johnson’s real case is for his value. It was a cold 20 and icy this March morning, and Johnson says the banjo player’s music is welcome “as the violets in March.”
And the section where I do a bit of a sticks and harmonica breakdown is the heart of the poem: children, who won’t even be able to pay the banjo player dimes like the adults in the saloon, love him like Santa Claus.
Here’s an irony darker than the joke of the banjo player who doesn’t know what a troubadour is. Fenton Johnson, Chicago’s pioneering Afro-American modernist poet had a life a bit like those three in the lottery joke. There was no 100 million, but he was born into an Afro-American family that had somehow accumulated some wealth. He was able to attend college. He dressed well, drove his electric motor car around the city. Like our joke’s doctor and lawyer, he wanted to use his good fortune and talents for good, to raise the status of Black Americans, the present task then for the early 20th Century “Talented Tenth.” And so, he established literary magazines, hoping to start a Chicago variation of the Harlem Renaissance, to promote the arts. But he was also like the musician in the lottery joke. Slowly, as literary magazines often do, those enterprises drained his efforts and his finances. He spent the last half of his life living on diminished means, his pioneering verse forgotten by all but a handful in Chicago.
There’s probably a good novel, play, or movie in Fenton Johnson’s story, but here at the Parlando Project we ask only that you listen for a few minutes to the compressed expression of poetry and some music, best as I can make it. The player is below.
Well that’s it for our look back that most liked and listened to pieces this past Winter. I’ll return soon with some new audio pieces.
“So, what are you going to do today?” my teenaged son asked me.
“Go and be of some use to the world.” I replied.
“How are you going to do that?”
“Write about Fenton Johnson.”
“No really, what are you going to do?”
“Write about Fenton Johnson.”
“Oh. I thought it was a joke or something when you said it.” He was mildly puzzled—but like most of us, most of the time, probably not interested in explanations. Fenton Johnson is not a figure of wide interest, even within the minority interest our culture finds in poetry. Perhaps at some later time he’ll read this, and it’s not an accident that I continue to write here aiming at someone just a bit older than he is.
Of course, I had meant that as something akin to a joke, because our lives and callings are all, taken whole, comic. The sport of fate and circumstance for good or ill should never be mistaken for judgement. Even the tragic is but darkly comic.
James Weldon Johnson: poetry anthologist and all-around American polymath,
finds he still can’t Tweet or post to Instragram from his phone.
In 1922, when James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Fenton) sought to make up the first anthology of Afro-American poetry, he had similar hopes, though more grounded in his greater talent and effort. James Weldon Johnson, like Felton Johnson, was a rare college-educated man in the early 20th Century, and doubly-rare, both were Afro-American college graduates. Both Johnsons held to a responsibility their circumstance pressed upon them: to uplift their race and to heal and resist the ignorance of racial prejudice.
That second part, the resistance part, should feel familiar, as it’s an ongoing struggle many will feel a part of today. Prejudice of many kinds, injustice in so many cases, is still a pressing issue. The uplift part however may feel quaint.
In his preface to “The Book of American Negro Poetry” James Weldon Johnson sets out the case that Black American poets should be able to rise to the highest levels of literary achievement, and while he’s not exactly apologetic about the poets his anthology will present, he’s also not a hype-man for what they have accomplished in 1922. Of Fenton Johnson, who he includes in his anthology, he says:
“Fenton Johnson is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.”
Yet, as I look for the work of Fenton Johnson today, almost all the work I find are citations to the same pieces James Weldon Johnson included in 1922. What stunted Fenton’s career? A more extensive biography than may exist would seek to answer that question. The struggle for poetry’s place in national culture was hard enough throughout the 20th Century, add to that the challenges of racism. I do know that Fenton Johnson sought to ambitiously broaden his cultural impact by financing and editing magazines on Black arts and culture, and the failure of these publications to become sustaining was one setback.
James Weldon Johnson, surveying Black Arts in his 1922 preface for his pioneering Negro Poetry collection, speaks not at all of the visual arts (ironically, just as European Modernists were latching onto African art as an influence) and little of Black acting, despite his connections with the New York stage of the time, but he does speak prophetically about the impact of Afro-Americans on American music. Having only the evidence of the spirituals, cakewalk, ragtime, and the imperfect understanding in the cultured North in 1922 of what the newly discovered “Blues” might truly be about, JWJ professes that Afro-American music is already a predominant strain. Nearly a century since, we can only say that he was too modest in his view of the future, however audacious he might have seemed in 1922. American music, seen from outside our country, and in any honest assessment from inside our borders, is Afro-American music. I don’t want to slight the contributions in our country’s music from many cultures when I say that—they are significant—but all of them cannot help but reflect on, and reflect back, the impact of the descendants of those Africans brought here as cargo.
Which brings us to this Fenton Johnson poem included in James Weldon Johnson’s anthology. Its overall intent is humorous. You can hear the college man’s mix of condescension with an honest observer’s eye for detail. What makes its poetry an example of the “ultra-modern school?” Our last episode’s Johnson piece, “A Dream,” was blank verse, even lines, even if the ironic asymmetry of its story is modern. The cadence of Johnson’s “God Is in the All Time” is strong and regular. “The Banjo Player” is free verse, conversational in rhythm. It jumps from the despair of the “Last Chance Saloon” mitigated by music, to the Kris Kringle promise of little children dancing and clapping to the banjo strum, finishing with a joke of the sophisticate.
Like the complex church music and rhetoric of “A Dream” last time, I had trouble musically portraying the Gus Cannon/Papa Charlie Jackson vibe of the banjo playing bluesman. The banjo is just an instrument that I fight with, and no cheating of one-man-band multi-tracking could save me here I fear. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, or someone better attuned to the banjo need to perform this.
I spent an afternoon yesterday depressed at my failure to fulfill the promise of Fenton Johnson’s piece. Could one more mix fix this? Nope.
I moped until I went to sleep.
And then my son asked me this question in the morning.
Today is the 140th anniversary of Carl Sandburg’s birth. Sandburg began his long and broad career as an American Imagist poet, political activist, and journalist, and he went on to add prize-winning biographer, folk-song revivalist, and goat farmer to his resume. If one was to make a list, he would be in a small group of American cultural forces in the first half of the 20th Century who created what we today call “Americana,” and helped make sure that this label could be applied, as it can be today, to a musical genre. I won’t have time to go into this today, but in 1927 he published “The American Songbag,” which is as important a landmark in the American folk song revival as “The Wasteland” is for high-art Modernist English verse.
I’ve spoken about Sandburg here a great deal in the past couple of years because I believe he’s too-little read, too-little considered in academic circles, and too-often misunderstood from the effects of this quick (mis)understanding and dismissal. To the degree that people encounter him in school or surveys of poetry, it’s for two poems. One, sometimes effectively used as an introduction to metaphor even at the grade school level, is his short Imagist poem “Fog.”
The other, better known as the Carl Sandburg poem, is his Whitmanesque “Chicago,” with its famous opening litany of praise for Chicago that is ever quoted whenever that city is to be characterized. Some things are odd about the case of “Chicago.” First, while folks remember and re-use it’s opening stanza of praise, they forget the three lines that follow it, which though stated in century-old language, is unmistakably as stark a report as any OG rap laying out hos, gangsters, and poverty:
“They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.”
Though “Chicago’s” Whitmanesque/expansive-litany style is one that Sandburg would continue to use at times, its prominence has overshadowed Sandburg’s sparer Imagist voice, the one that he used for the rest of the poems in his landmark “Chicago Poems” collection.
It’s easy to think that if Sandburg had spent time in Europe hobnobbing with its cosmopolitan demi-mode, if he had included more Latin and Greek in his poems, and if he’d kept his political outlook to something between Tory and crypto-Fascist, that he might have scored more academic cred in the second half of the 20th Century. And his more general popularity, like that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, is in danger of dying out after the death of the fire-starter without the hard-blowing bellows of academia keeping the embers glowing.
If that’s so, who does that leave to keep Sandburg’s poetry more broadly heard?
If anyone remembers Sandburg, particularly the spare, Imagist Sandburg, it’s musicians and composers. He gets set to music often, and his free verse often sings easily. And, it seems to me that musicians, rather than page-poetry curators, more often remember the innovative modernist in Sandburg. One of my favorite records of 2017 was Matt Wilson’s “Honey and Salt” which, like the Parlando Project, seeks to use a variety of music combined with Sandburg’s underappreciated broader pallet of literary expression in unexpected ways.
A promotional trailer for Matt Wilson’s Sandburg “Honey and Salt” recording
Today’s piece, a slightly remastered version of one I used to test streaming audio here before the official launch of the Parlando Project, is Sandburg’s tender “Winter Milk” as performed by the LYL Band a couple of years ago. You can hear it with the player below.
A slightly older Helga Sandburg on the left with her parents and sisters.
A gentle reminder, I encourage readers and listeners here to share the links to these pieces on social media as it helps spread the work that Parlando Project does very effectively.