The Empty American Songbag…

“What can a poor boy do/’Cept to sing in a rock and roll band…?”                                                                                                                – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards

Walt Whitman (Matthew Brady portrait – image courtesy Wikimedia)

If you’re about to explore any aspect of American culture, you rarely go wrong by beginning with a Walt Whitman quote. Here he is on the subject of music:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear;
Those of mechanics–each one singing his, as it should be, blithe and strong;
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work;
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat–the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck;
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench–the hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song–the ploughboy’s, on his way in the morning,
or at the noon intermission, or at sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother–or of the young wife at work–or of the girl sewing or washing–Each singing what belongs to her, and to none else;
The day what belongs to the day–At night, the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious songs.

In our time (gratuitous Hemingway allusion) you’ve probably heard one pundit or another bemoaning the conspicuous absence of music as commentary on social/political issues.  So why isn’t America singing these days? Answering that question is the aim of this rambling, unscientific stroll thorough the history of American song. 

Carl Sandburg (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The poet with the most in common with Whitman (both stylistically and in outlook) of the last 120 years is probably Carl Sandburg. Sandburg, who, in 1927 published one of the seminal collections of America singing – The American Songbag.  Gathered by Sandburg in a less scientific way than Alan Lomax gathered the material for his archives and without the commercial intent of Ralph Peer, Sandburg gives us the lyrics to what Whitman heard – America singing. Here is an example:

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum

“This old song heard at the water tanks of railroads in Kansas in 1897 and from harvest hands who worked in the wheat fields of Pawnee County, was picked up later by the I.W. W.’s, who made verses of their own for it, and gave it a wide fame. The migratory workers are familiar with the Salvation Army missions, and have adopted the Army custom of occasionally abandoning all polite formalities and striking deep into the common things and ways for their music and words. A “handout” is food handed out from a back door as distinguished from a “a sit down” which means an entrance into a house and a chair at a table.”

1. Oh, why don’t you work
Like other men do?
How the hell can I work
When there’s no work to do?
Hallelujah, I’m a bum,
Hallelujah, bum again,
Hallelujah, give us a handout,
To revive us again!

2. Oh, I love my boss
And my boss loves me,
And that is the reason
I’m so hungry,
Hallelujah, etc.

3. Oh, the springtime has came
And I’m just out of jail,
Without any money,
Without any bail.
Hallelujah, etc.

4. I went to a house,
And I knocked on the door;
A lady came out, says,
“You been here before.”
Hallelujah, etc.

5. I went to a house,
And I asked for a piece of bread;
A lady came out, says,
“The baker is dead.”
Hallelujah, etc.

6. When springtime does come,
O won’t we have fun,
We’ll throw up our jobs
And we’ll go on the bum.
Hallelujah, etc.

The assumption of cultural historical knowledge that under girds this song says much about American cultural knowledge. It is this tradition of reference to social and political history that forms the basis of balladry and folk music – the ability of the musician to reference events that listeners know and beliefs that listeners either share or dispute is as old as the Middle Ages – and how America has always sung about herself. This music allows musicians – and the people – to observe, reflect upon, and critique their society and government.

It has long been part of our national conversation.

Bob Dylan (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Even as recently as Boomers’ lifetimes, that conversation was in full bloom. Here’s Bob Dylan:

Masters Of War

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead.

We all sense that the conversation is being stifled now.  In Boulder, CO, several years back, a high school rock band was prevented from performing the above song. Other than some raging in the blogosphere at the time, almost nothing happened.

Where’s the outrage, many asked at the time.

That leads us back to the complaints about the lack of music discussing the clear cultural/social/political war being fought in our country.  What happened to “the people’s music,” as Alan Lomax once called it. Why are we at the sterile place we seem to be now…?

About Jim Booth

Novelist, college professor, rock musician - are we getting the band back together? Maybe....
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2 Responses to The Empty American Songbag…

  1. Pingback: Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman: The Power of a Great Story | Scholars and Rogues | Progressive Culture

  2. Pingback: Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman: The Power of a Great Story | The New Southern Gentleman

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