from Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln: the Prairie Years

I neglected to plan ahead enough for today’s U. S. Presidents’ Day holiday. It’s an odd holiday anyway, of no great interest to the large number of readers/listeners this project has overseas. And for Americans, the title and avowed purpose of the holiday may be especially fraught in our present day.

Back when I was young, it was two holidays, celebrating two specific Presidents: George Washington’s Birthday and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday. The first President, a leader of the American Revolution, had a cardinal virtue: he could have become the dictator of the newly independent country. That after all, is the result of many revolutions. He was one of the richest and most powerful men in the new country, full-fledged in the 1% for certain. Yes, part of his wealth consisted of enslaved men and women he owned, but these facts strangely testify to this one important fact in his character: he could have been that dictator. He could have run our country as a personal plantation. He would not.

Abraham Lincoln is another case entirely. I’m not au fait with the demographics of the early 19th century United States, but Lincoln’s family was undistinguished in wealth and fame then, and the circumstances of a rural frontier farming family in his time and place would rank his conditions with those of the world’s poorer regions today.

American poet Carl Sandburg was born less than 70 years after Lincoln, the son of a wealth-less immigrant in a rural America that was different from Lincoln’s, but much closer to Lincoln’s country life than we are today. When, in the last previous decade to be called “The Twenties,” Sandburg chose to write a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he could see those differences, smaller though they were to his eyes. And his eyes were an Imagist poet’s eyes.

This led to an unusual book,* one that was once central to Sandburg’s contemporary renown, but now is generally less well-regarded. Sandburg chose to tell the Lincoln story, as he might portray a scene in one of his poems, with a great deal of humble detail that at any moment could slip into a wider context unexpectedly. His palpable reverence for those humble details is unmistakable.

When Lincoln wrote and spoke the great American civic poem called “The Gettysburg Address”  he famously began by noting our “fathers brought forth upon this continent.” Sandburg though, in telling Lincoln’s story was not exclusively beholden to the patriarchy. And so, however late for Presidents’ Day, here’s a piece more directly about the holiday’s forerunner: Lincoln’s Birthday, as portrayed in Sandburg’s book.

I could see Sandburg, being a poet, choosing poetic methods of refrain as he tells the story of Abe’s birth, and then but a few pages later the death of Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks Lincoln. Each event is set in humble rural isolation, with a central image of a bed of poles and animal hides, cleated to the wall in the corner of a hand-built, dirt-floor hut. This is where Nancy Hanks first presented us Lincoln’s birth day, and also where she died nine years later.

Abe Lincoln's Birth Day

When Dell books got the paperback rights to Sandburg’s condensed version of his Lincoln book, they also made a 1956 comic book from it. The unknown artist didn’t follow Sandburg’s text accurately for the interior scenes however. The cabin drawing is based on a later reconstruction and the interior panel could be a 20th century home familiar to the 1950s reader.

 

Can we believe that’s an American story, much less the story of the birth of a President? It seems like a tale from somewhere else, particularly today. Oh, so much, particularly today. Like a grim fairy tale passed down from some old country. That the Lincolns’ nearest neighbors have the name “Sparrow” only adds to this effect. I decided that Sandburg’s Lincoln tale needed an invocation, a striking way to set us in readiness. My choice for that was to begin with a quote from Patti Smith’s “Birdland,”  another place where music met words to tell the tale of a child who had lost a parent. In the little section I chose here Smith—like Sandburg will at times in his tale—steps outward from the particular in her poem to the promise of an ecstatic future.

The player to hear this performance should appear below. Because I was so late in getting this piece together, the main section retains a “scratch” rhythm section track I used while constructing the piece that I’d normally replace, but I doubt it detracts much from Sandburg’s story.

 

 

 

*The first book, published in two volumes,  Abraham Lincoln: the Prairie Years  was followed up several years later with Abraham Lincoln: the War Years  published in four volumes. These books were in their time a success, and helped form the American cultural understanding of Lincoln in the 20th century. After another interval of years Sandburg created his own one volume condensation of these books, greatly shortening the original text. With my short deadline, it was from that later edition, the one I could get quick access to, that today’s text it extracted.

The Bird Dream

You can be in my dream, if I can be in yours. Bob Dylan said that.

You may have noticed that blog post frequency has fallen off a bit this month. Well besides the usual struggle of an upper Midwest winter, both alternative Parlando Project reader Dave Moore and I have had some extra tasks this month. I’ve been helping transition my mother-in-law to new living arrangements, and Dave has been working on editing a book of his father’s sermons.

Today’s post  is a piece that Dave wrote a few years back about his parents, and his father’s experience after Dave’s mother had died.  Like many good stories, it seeks to find meaningful connections in the flow of coincidental events.

And speaking of coincidence or archetypes or something, I wrote another piece myself a few years back. Though I did not mention it explicitly, my piece was also engendered by thinking of my father now living alone after my mother had died. Both pieces used the image of a bird trapped in a house.

I’ll not attach any more meaning than that to this. Today’s piece is Dave Moore’s story, read by Dave. Click on the gadget below to hear his story. Tomorrow I’ll post mine.

Homeopathic Hometown

Today’s piece recounts a common Midwestern experience, returning on a holiday to the much smaller town where one grew up.

For my post WWII generation, these smaller towns retained in our youth much of the vibrancy they had gathered in the first half of the 20th Century. The American rural world was larger then. Car travel was still not universal. Small farming and small manufacturing and small schools hadn’t been efficiently improved to larger sizes. Mass media, which seemed so large and potentially dangerous then, amounted to radio, newspapers, magazines and eventually a trio of gray and silver TV stations as the little rounded screens hovered into homes like flying saucers. So these little autonomous towns continued, 1950 like 1920.

How many of us, old now, can still, in memory, walk down main streets of their towns and small cities of their youth, seeing the storefronts, and hail silently the adult walkers and lost peers who might be walking there too? As I meet and talk to people near my age whose childhood was in larger cities, I find that they too had similar memories of neighborhoods. These neighborhoods were in effect, villages inside their cities—but this piece is about small Iowa towns in particular.

When we grew up, went to college, or left for adventure, marriage, or other work, we left a town and a time. When we went back to these towns, to visit our parents, our parents and our towns are found changed, not into coral bones and pearls, but into places slowly emptier and less vital. The storefronts empty and the eyes less bright; the houses, faded with dead paint and backs swayed.

Full fathom five thy father lies.
Of his bones are coral made.
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

Eventually, it is as if the thread of memory has been unraveled from a large ball of yarn, and now the ball is no more.

In this way, our hometowns disappear, becoming gradually diluted of everything we could return to. Today’s piece “Homeopathic Hometown” is about this. Homeopathy is the theory that you can dilute a medicine until it, like our hometowns, retains nothing—or next to nothing—of the the medicine, and yet the solution will somehow “remember” the medicine and its effects.

That of course is how nostalgia works. We remember our personal version of the hometown, and find there is a hole between the molecules as we revisit our hometown. I suspect those without the specific gravity of our memories live now in a different appreciation for the place. It will take time for their own dilution to complete.

Bowie Low

Iowa! What am I doing in Iowa instead of Berlin?
I wanted to see late 20th Century decay, but, hog lots?

 

Musically, I was trying to emulate here the sound and feel of the David Bowie/Brian Eno “Berlin Trilogy” when I wrote and recorded this in 2015, about a year before David Bowie would suffer his own sea-change. Much of what sounds like keyboard syths in the mix is instead “normal” guitar filtered and delayed. I think the mix works especially well with headphones or earbuds on this one.