Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, October 29, 2004


I have to thank critic Tom Carson for dissing my man Carl Sandburg in his review of Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles,” because it inspired me to re-read some of his stuff, dig deeper in collections I’d skimmed, and look up some bio.

A few facts. Sandburg was born in 1878 in smalltown Illinois to very poor Swedish immigrant parents. He quit school at 13 to go to work, and at 17 he hoboed to Kansas. While stationed in Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War, he made a friend who talked him into going to college. Started writing Whitman-inspired free verse there, got encouragement, dropped out, worked as a journalist and as a secretary to Milwaukee’s socialist mayor. All this before his most famous poem, “Chicago.” Continued traveling across the country to sing recitals and read poems. Wrote big biography of Lincoln. Eventually became an icon of “folk” Americana. Marilyn Monroe was photographed dancing with him. (This last fact I remember from the glossy Norman Mailer picture book on Marilyn that I used to take down from my parents’ shelf in order to look at the pictures. There were lots of words too, but I never read them.)

Sandburg's rep is corny, stodgy, smarmy, but his lifestory belies that -- he really was a hobo, and a socialist, and a bohemian modernist. Of the 255 songs in “American Songbag,” he claims that he and his friends themselves collected about 100 of them that had never before been published. He was learning songs from ex-cons & hoboes & migrant workers & day laborers & street drunks. & from college professors too, and in his book he says so.

According to this interesting web article by Ron Chester, in 1964 Dylan visited Sandburg to pay tribute. He told Sandburg that Woody Guthrie had talked about him a lot.

And Woody talked like him too. This is from Sandburg’s introduction to “The American Songbag,” and to me it sounds something like Guthrie, and something like Pete Seeger too. Influential, not only in the songs he bagged, but in how he talked of them.

“History, we may repeat, runs through this book. Yet it is first of all, we say again, a songbook to be sung rather than read. Music and the human voice command this parade of melodies and lyrics. They speak, murmur, cry, yell, laugh, pray; they take roles; they play parts; in topics, scenes, and ‘props’ they range into anthropology, houses, machines, ships, railroad trains, churches, saloons, picnics, hayrack and steamboat parties, and human strugglers chanting farewell to the frail frameworks of earthly glory. There is patter and jabber of vulgarity, there are falsetto mockers and groaning blasphemies, there is moaning of prayers and tumult and shouting of faiths.”

Comments: Post a Comment

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?