Carl Sandburg: Teaching America Its Songs

Year

2014

Years before he ever published a book of poetry, Carl Sandburg was becoming well-known with a guitar. He had been working as a traveling salesman, political organizer, and poetry lecturer when, in 1910, he decided to add music to his repertoire. He bought his first guitar, and quickly discovered that the addition drew a much larger audience: the recitation of his own poetry combined with his performance of popular folk songs in his imitable baritone voice attracted eager crowds.

In 1921, he wrote to a friend, "I am reading poems and singing Casey Jones, Steamboat Bill, and medleys. This whole thing is only in its beginnings, America knowing its songs.…It’s been amazing to me to see how audiences rise to 'em." Sandburg developed a fairly specific methodology to these readings and performances. He believed that a singer had to live with a song and ingrain it into his or her being; in performance, his work was to act out a dramatic part as a "story-teller of a piece of action." When giving performances, he first talked about poetry and art, then read some original verses, and concluded with fifteen to thirty minutes of songs and commentary.

The vocation of performing poetry and folksongs was perfect for Sandburg, who once wrote: "I am a loafer and a writer and would much rather loaf and write, and pick a guitar with the proper vags, than to deliver spoken exhortations before any honorable bodies wheresoever."

Throughout the early 1920s, Sandburg collected and notated the folksongs he heard on his travels, eventually amassing a repertoire of over three hundred songs. This project would ultimately become the classic volume American Songbag, published in 1927. He narrowed down the selection to 255 tunes, and altered some (for the sake of the "mood"), but otherwise he printed them as he heard them. In the introduction, he calls the book "an All-American affair, marshaling the genius of thousands of original singing Americans." The collection quickly became a standard in households across America.

In his famous poem "Chicago," Sandburg proclaims, "Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be / alive and coarse and strong and cunning." To this remarkably versatile poet, the statement is a literal one--poetry and song intertwine, and in the overlap between the two, one can most clearly hear the voice of the American people.

In 1999, more than thirty years after Sandburg's death, Lyrichord Disks released The Great Carl Sandburg: Songs of America, an album containing seventeen selections from American Songbag. Recorded in the 1950s, and remastered for release, it is one of the few recordings available of Sandburg singing.

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