Talk about getting not nearly enough respect for a career of splendid achievement. Carl Sandburg (left, with Jean Ritchie), regarded during his lifetime as a major American poet second only to his contemporary Robert Frost, is now neglected to the point of being all but forgotten. I suppose one possible reason for this is that he is sandwiched in terms of time between two other great free verse poets, his own role model Walt Whitman and his more flamboyant successor Allen Ginsberg.
But Sandburg is much more dimensional than either of those two, and in his cultural importance - and in his importance to those of us who love folk music - he beats out nearly every other writer and folkie in American history in one critical regard. Sandburg is the link, the connection, between the high culture of published poetry and the people's culture (of folk music, actually) in a way that Whitman dreamed of but never quite succeeded at and that Ginsberg attempted but never realized (Ginsberg's success at being the iconic voice of the outsider).
Sandburg took the Whitman-esque style of long lines of apparently rambling free verse and infused it with a more pointed political perspective than Whitman ever quite managed to do. About the most political that Whitman ever got was to endorse the Union cause in the Civil War and fall in love with the idea of Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg, on the other hand, channeled his eighth grade education and early life of manual labor into a poetry that transcended Whitman's dreamy paeans to the common man into a harder edged, more real imagery that nonetheless celebrated the wisdom and virtue of the masses. Does anyone still remember "Chicago"?
Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities....
A lifelong socialist activist, Sandburg had the same faith in the People that we today associate with a Whitman or a Woody Guthrie or a Pete Seeger. But Sandburg was also an early contributor to and editor of the august Poetry magazine, popular among the intellectual elites of two continents, and his work was in fashion in salons from New York to London and Paris.
At the same time, though, Sandburg was out collecting folk songs, inspired in part by the Lomaxes and other early collectors, but also by his own belief that folk music was the art of the common people, with a power in and of itself (without resorting to writing new political songs) to transform and redeem America.
The result of his work was the classic American Song Bag of 1927, my own personal favorite right behind the Lomax books. It was apparently one of the Kingston Trio's favorite books as well, because they took maybe half a dozen songs from it that they list as copyrighted by Sandburg, including landmarks "Sloop John B," "The Colorado Trail," - and "This Morning, This Evening So Soon."
Often called "Tell Old Bill" and copyrighted by Sandburg as "Dis Mornin' An' Dis Evenin' So Soon," the song is clearly an African-American country blues number that may have originated from an older song in Georgia in the mid-nineteenth century. Sandburg told of hearing it in St. Louis in 1922 from a Nancy Barnhart, and it was roughly her arrangement he published. Sometime in the 30s, the recently-deceased Sam Hinton heard another version in Texas and recorded it. Sandburg's later editions of Song Bag reflect some of the elements of Hinton's song, and it is through that latter arrangement that most of us have come to know the number, courtesy of Sandburg's fellow Chicagoan Bob Gibson.
The Kingston Trio's version on their 1960 album String Along follows the basic chord pattern from Sandburg's book but with some extra minor chords thrown in and a bluesy guitar opening that sounds a bit like the Guard trio's opening for "Don't You Weep, Mary":
The vocals on this cut are IMHO just outstanding - one of my all time KT favorites.
And for outstanding vocals - how about Chad Mitchell on lead, from the CMT Reflecting album from 1964:
Next, a version from the great Dave Van Ronk, Greenwich Village's "Mayor of MacDougal Street" who was a powerful influence on the young Bob Dylan and one of the most effective of white singers who interpreted African-American blues:
More recently, Eric Bibb, son of art folk performer Leon Bibb, with Brian Kramer in a version that may be the closest to what the song that Sandburg first heard sounded like:
There is one very significant Kingston Trio connection to Sandburg, one I think not widely known. At my first fantasy camp in 2003, John Stewart and Nick Reynolds duetted on "Sloop John B" in a rough, unrehearsed version that I've posted on YouTube(link below). Even before the thunderous applause subsided, Nick had grabbed the vocal mic and with an asperity in his voice that I found arresting said, "When we were first starting out, there were a lot of people calling us 'phony folksingers' and such. One man who stood up for us - one of the really righteous men - was the poet Carl Sandburg, who collected that song. He sent us all a really nice letter with autographed copies of his works The Lincoln Years*. We never forgot that."
Amen, Nick Reynolds. And God bless you, Carl Sandburg.
Addendum - March, 2012
Thanks to Alex Edouard, whose comment appears below, we can also enjoy Nathan Salsburg & Will Oldham doing their version in 2007 - Oldham is better known by his stage name of Bonnie Prince Billy:
*Nick was referring to Sandburg's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography in two volumes, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years.
Link to Nick and John, Sloop John B:
Reynolds/Stewart Sloop John B
Amateur Time - Nice home recording - Leo Keating:
Courtesy of Bo - Fred Grittner, me, Neal Spivey, Mr Banjo, and Art Yow a few weeks ago:
At the risk of sending Carl Sandburg spinning in his grave - Merle Haggard is a major performing artist whose singing and song selection I usually enjoy. Here, though, Merle got a hold of the number and turned it into something quite different:
Well, I guess that's one use you can put Public Domain material to....