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.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

Here’s a piece for today’s U. S. holiday: President’s Day.

Long-time readers here know that’s not going to be simple, but it may be interesting.

For some time in this project I’ve thought I’ll have to deal with Vachel Lindsay. In the early days of poetic Modernism a century ago, when no one knew exactly how that movement would turn out, Lindsay was a force to be reckoned with, with a life story and approach to his art that was so outsized, that if he hadn’t actually existed, and instead you created him as a character, you would be charged with unrealistic and exaggerated imagination.

In the great American tradition of bohemian artistry, Lindsay was not well-off, not Ivy League educated, nor born in some cultural capitol. By force of will he decided that he would make his way in the increasingly business-oriented world of the 20th Century as a poet.

How’d that work out? Better than you might imagine, if only for a time. He made most of his bones touring the country intensively, reciting his poetry in a flamboyant style. Much like the life of a musician, it worked only to the degree that he was able to keep up a relentless road-dog touring schedule. Between tours, what time he had to write was also the time that he fell into debt and doubt.

If you think that poetry should be, at least in part, a spoken art form, Lindsay was there before. If one wants poetry to be appreciated as a popular form, with no academic prerequisites, Lindsay lived that. If you want poetry to be a force for social good, Lindsay too. Slam poetry? Lindsay was doing that before there was a name. Poetry inspired by and linked with vernacular music? Lindsay, a century ago.

Vachel Lindsay strikes a pose

Vachel Lindsay is not doing the hokey-pokey here, but performing poetry.

 

So why haven’t I presented Vachel Lindsay before today? Three reasons.

One, he wrote a lot of bad or flawed poetry. Awkward, sentimental, not particularly striking in imagery, and despite his spoken word and musical inclinations, not always in tune with my sense of music.

Secondly, though he always claimed his heart was in the right place, his treatment of other cultures was so clumsy and ignorant that it’s too often indiscernible from racism. This isn’t a close call, or some case of modern politically correct revisionism, even in his own era this was noticed. It was more than 50 years ago when I first ran into one of his set pieces, “The Congo,”  and from that I figured I was done with Vachel Lindsay.*

These are both general reasons why Lindsay is not seriously considered along with his contemporary Modernists of the early 20th Century. But there is another, more personal reason: I fear the Vachel Lindsay in myself. When I see in my own writing awkwardness and flawed art, when I stop to consider the un-earned audacity of my own spoken word and musical expression, when I catch myself assuming that good intentions are sufficient, when I write here of other cultures and experiences, and despite my provincial and limited knowledge of them, perform works associated with them—then I fear I’m becoming my own variation of Vachel Lindsay. I continue to do those things anyway, stubbornly—again, like Lindsay.

Art is not just a place to model human potential. It’s also a revelation of human failures. Bad art can inspire good art. Failures illuminate as much as successes.

With that long introduction, let me now tell you that today’s piece, “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (in Springfield Illinois)”  is still worthy of four minutes of your attention. Unlike China or the Congo, Lindsay knows Lincoln’s adult hometown of Springfield Illinois, as it was his hometown too. “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”  is not a piece that extends language, it has no clever images that re-calibrate how you experience something, its word-music is not so beautiful that you’d be drawn to it before you even care what it’s about. We have long celebrated Abraham Lincoln as the President of our greatest national traumatic event, the American Civil War, fought over our greatest national sin, slavery. So, the poem has only an emotional, empathetic message, but this is all art delivers to us however plain or fancy the wrapping.

President’s Day is not a simple holiday today. Here’s my performance of Lindsay’s Lincoln poem. I kept the music simple enough and in that hometown key of C. The high melody part that sounds like a synth patch is actually 12-string guitar run through a lot of time and modulation effects and a compressor. The player is below:

 

 

 

*Here’s a recording of Lindsay reading part of “The Congo” which gives some idea of his performance style and also his manifold issues with understanding and appropriating African experience. And here are some excerpts of remarks on the poem and Lindsay.

Poets and Presidents Day

I don’t know if we’ll ever have a person who spent serious time as a writer as U.S. president. Yes, most write—or co-write to some degree—books leading up to their candidacy, and some kind of post-term memoir is now expected; but I’m speaking of a sustained and serious attempt at literary writing.

In my lifetime we had one prominent candidate (Eugene McCarthy) who did write poetry in the mid-century modernist style, and a substantial “leading up to their candidacy” book of political history from John Kennedy, though there is controversy about how much of “Profiles in Courage”  was ghost-written. Jimmy Carter has published books of poetry after leaving office, but at least so far as I’ve sampled his poetry, it hasn’t stuck with me.

Other democracies may have better examples. Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, and that winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature with a side job, Winston Churchill. Farther back there are more chief executives who could fill a shelf with their own books: Disraeli, Theodore Roosevelt.

Overall, I’m not sure that “men of letters” (a gender-neutral term doesn’t seem to jibe with that archaic phrase) are, as a class, good candidates for the Presidency. Writing is the perfect example of a one-person enterprise. To do it well takes a lot of effort, but most always it involves the writer setting themselves on that course by convincing themselves of it’s necessity and then carrying on with little assistance, at least until the publishable stage is reached. Leadership and coalition–building aren’t needed in those tasks. Vision is helpful in either field; but if we are to be honest with our selves, democracies only set much value in that in times of crisis.

washington.lincoln.apotheosis

“I extend this laurel, and hearty handshake…”

 

Though neither sought to publish, the two Presidents whose birthdays have been merged into Presidents Day do have poems to their credit. George Washington, as a love-struck teenager penned an incomplete acrostic poem that was to spell out the name of the subject of his affections. Last year the Parlando Project turned it into an angsty soft-loud expression of that youthful boldness-fear, one that, surprisingly, remains the most popular audio piece we’ve ever done.  Here’s the player for “Frances,”  Washington’s love poem:

 

 

Abraham Lincoln, the great American orator and leader, wrote a three-section poem in his 30s while recalling the hometown of his early youth. We set part of this to music for his birthday earlier this month. It’s quite sad, in a mode that was somewhat common in 19th Century literature, but there’s reason to think that Lincoln wasn’t just striking a pose. It’s now commonly believed that he suffered from some level of depression in his adulthood. To hear Lincoln’s “My Childhood Home I See Again,”  use the player below.

My Childhood Home I See Again

Tomorrow is celebrated in the United States as Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday—or rather, it was in the past. In 1971, a uniform Monday holiday, often called President’s Day, centralized what had been in the past dual, separate, celebrations of Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s.

Washington (as poet Phillis Wheatley’s motto for him said) was first in war and first in peace, and we owe him a great debt for being the rare revolutionary leader that did not try to crown his success with dictatorship. But Lincoln’s achievements are every bit Washington’s equal; though his central achievement, a US government that no longer enforced chattel slavery throughout the country has in recent decades been somewhat obscured for complex reasons.

But here at the Parlando Project, where we combine music with words, Lincoln gets extra props for being as great a wordsmith as any US Chief Executive. While taking the various roads that lead to this piece I read his famous Gettysburg Address, or rather refreshed myself with the words in manuscript form, for as a child I had memorized it.

At this site it’s possible to trace the slight revisions that Lincoln applied draft by draft to polish this concise statement of dedication. And the same site linked to another site that let me read (for the first time) Edward Everett’s main speech at the same Gettysburg dedication.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of how the two speeches that day in 1863 contrasted. It’s no legend. Everett’s speech lasted over two hours. Lincoln’s could have fitted his into a linked series of five Tweets today, and it takes a couple of minutes to read. Go ahead, read as much of Everett’s speech as you can. It’s the kind of grand utterance that could have caused the 19th Century to invent TLDNR 140 years sooner.

So, Lincoln could fashion a memorable, resonant phrase and express complex things concisely. That’s the kind of literary talent that leads one to ask if he wrote poetry. He did, but as far as we know, there’s not very much of it. He wrote some occasional, short, light verse. His serious poetic works consist of an attributed poem with a narrator speaking of suicide, and a three-part poem recalling his hometown.

Abe Lincoln in 1847

Abe Lincoln in his mid-30s, 1847, around the time he wrote today’s words.

 

It’s from the first part of that later Lincoln poem that I created today’s piece, “My Childhood Home I See Again.”  It was published anonymously through the efforts of a friend of his in 1847. Lincoln was in his troubled 30s when his longer poems were written, and he seems to have been suffering from depression, the depth and length of which is subject of much discussion among historical scholars.

The parts I used from “My Childhood Home I See Again”  tell much the same story as English poet Thomas Hardy’s The Self Unseeing,”  but Lincoln’s poem is more melancholy, even if he tries to make some pretense of it being only wistful. By the final couplet, Lincoln’s own words put in him the situation of George Saunders’ “Lincoln in the Bardo.”   I suppose one could also compare Lincoln and Hardy’s poems to my own pieceHomeopathic Hometown.”

For today’s music I used an acoustic guitar and my semi-acoustic Jack Casady bass guitar for the main accompaniment. I try to stay away from instrument-geekery most of the time here, but that bass was actually designed by the musician, it’s not some “paint it a different color and slap on a decal” marketing gimmick. I love its sound, as you may be able to tell from the mix today. To hear too much (or just enough) bass guitar, and Lincoln’s sad words as I set them to music, use the player below.

 

 

Frances

Here a piece based on a short, incomplete poem written by a teenager who went on to do other things. You can tell he’s a clever young man. He’s infatuated with a neighbor girl, but there’s no such thing as texting yet—no such things as telephones either. Thankfully, love songs are a well-established technology, so he sets to work on one.

To make sure that she knows he’s serious about her, and not the other young ladies he’s been seen cavorting with, he decides it’s not just going to be a poem, it’s going to be an acrostic. The first letter of each line will, if read downward, spell out her full name.
 
If John Lennon had wanted to write “Oh Yoko” as an acrostic, it wouldn’t have added much difficulty to his verse. Alas, our teenager’s object of affections is Frances Alexander. Well it could have worse, if he was a teenager who wanted to write a love song to the New Zealand singer who performs as Lorde, and wanted to use her full name, he’d have to write a 27 line poem to Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor.

He only needs 16 lines to prove his love.

GW Poem

OK, he’s finished the “Frances” part, now onto “Alexander”

 

He gets to line 11. Gotta start with “X.” He grabs onto Xerxes, the famous Persian leader and general to fill out his acrostic, but one line later he runs out of gas and just drops the poem before finishing.

Xerxes_I

Our poet got his face on some money too

 

Didn’t finish the poem, didn’t get the girl, but our teenager like Xerxes became a famous general and eventually his country’s leader. He’s got a birthday coming up on the 22nd, but they celebrate our boy George Washington’s birthday as a US holiday today.

In writing the music for this piece, I decided to just take Washington’s words seriously. Even if the sentiments he uses are somewhat conventional (the “my love outshines the sun” trope was old enough that Shakespeare made fun of it more than 200 years before Washington got to it). Love songs sometimes make no effort to be original, and if done well, the human commonness of the experience of love becomes the point.  Here, even if he was following his acrostic plan, young Washington takes a darker turn as he starts the second part of his poem, and I tried to bring that out in my version. To hear it, use the player below.