a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Issue #27 (January 6, 2010)

Parque Nacionale Huequerque, Chile

Photo by Jon Fine

Carl Sandburg
by Bart Bull

Carl Sandburg, once neck and neck with Hemingway as America’s most famous writer (while unequivocally winning the droopy unpaid laurel of “America’s Most Famous Living Poet,” Non-Academic Division), has long since been given the unceremonious heave-ho from any and all AmLit surveys, defenestrated from the Pantheon’s upper deck, his literary stock sent plummeting like a brawny-shouldered Illinois anvil shoved sidelong off the once-and-former Sears Tower skydeck. But Sandburg was back in those days considered — and especially on the Left — as America’s Poet, probably the most widely known American literary figure since Mark Twain.

Sandburg had lived the type of life that would later become a standard joke, the fabled Proletarian Novelist’s Pedigree, practically a literary genre all on its own. (And one which as much as anything was inspired and shaped by Sandburg’s chronicling of the Great Rail-Splitter’s own homespun linsey-woolsey checkered past.) Child of Swedish immigrants, an illiterate blacksmith father and a mother who loved books, he had been a porter, a shoeshine boy, a kid with a milk route, a short-order cook, a hobo who did ten days on vagrancy charges, a dishwasher, a harvest hand, a house painter, a volunteer in the Sixth Illinois Regiment of State Militia when the time came to drive the foul Spaniard from Guantanamo Bay, a Socialist labor organizer, a salesman, a newspaper reporter, a poet (whose hog-butchering poem “Chicago,” actually won a $200 prize in 1914, a mark that may not yet have been eclipsed when you consider what $200 bought then, and what poetry in print pays then or ever), a pro folksinger and published folk song collector, and finally, as he would be best known from 1925 on, as the biographer Abraham Lincoln might have wished upon himself.

But Sandburg was beyond all this, because like it or not, he was actually a poet, and a great one, though a great one of sorts. At his worst, he was too direct, too maudlin, and plainspoken to a severe fault. These were his strengths as well, because he was determined to speak directly, a reporter-poet ready to risk the emotion raised by the drama of daily life observed closely, and he was especially determined to talk in his poetry rather than declaim, to talk, to talk as an American, to risk missing the arch tone of the poet if he could achieve the poetry of a joke made at lunchbreak. A committed Socialist, he was determined to trouble the political waters, but he was at least as determined to locate poetry in the land he’d surveyed around him, the same land young Abe had surveyed as frontier. It’s a pretty tough row to hoe, this political poetry jazz, and he missed more often than he hit. It was a batting average to be proud of.

Sandburg’s Lincoln biography, begun as “a book for young people,” bloomed beyond that but maintaining a certain intended sweetness at heart, was in its day considered to be one of the great literary works of America. “A Lincoln whom no other man than Carl Sandburg could have given us,” said Mark Van Doren; “A monument that will stand forever,” wrote Robert E. Sherwood, and the New York Times reviewed it as, flatly, “...the best biography of our day.” The very few nay-sayers it ever gathered derided it as a hagiography but it was less A Life of the Saint than A Life of the Christ. The Prairie Years, published in two volumes in 1926, and originally titled simply “Abraham Lincoln,” had more of its juvenile origin in its genetic code, but after its great popular, critical, and financial and public success, Sandburg spent much of the next thirteen years working on the four volumes that would be The War Years, with their unavoidably darker vision. It was the Prairie Lincoln, though, — railsplitting rockabilly Abe, the Young Elvis, not the bearded Las Vegas President Lincoln — that was everywhere in the Popular Front years. Sherwood’s own play “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1938, and was dutifully turned into a dull Hollywood movie in 1940, lagging behind John Ford’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln.

The book that followed on the heels of The Prairie Years, was a pioneering collection of songs, The American Songbag. Sandburg had always closed his poetry readings and lectures on Socialism with a few songs played on guitar, and on some nights members of his audience taught him new ones before the evening was ended. He described his collection as “ 280 songs, ballads, ditties, brought together from all regions of America.” He went on to declare the songs’ sources, commencing with “That notable distinctive American institution, the black-face minstrel...” and he spoke of railroad, hobo, work-gang, steamboat songs. He mentioned Mexican border songs before he touched on the lumberjacks, loggers and shanty boys, and even before bringing up the ballads of the southern mountains or the Negro spiritual. He was on the seventh paragraph of his introduction before he mentioned something called “folk songs.”

There had been collections of American songs before this one, and he pointedly acknowledged a number of the most recent ones. He suggested the songs be sung any way you could manage, and — listen; take note; pay attention here and now — he didn’t end up owning any of the copyrights. He didn’t claim any of copyrights. He didn’t get into any of the legal squabbles that the other folksong collectors who followed did whenever some tune they knew got on the radio, and the pennies began to pile up in somebody else’s account, even though they all knew they hadn’t ever written it. He proved that it was possible to print a folk song collection and not gut the wallet of any folk too dumb or dead or poor or stupid to have heard what a lawyer might do.

(excerpt from a forthcoming work)

At the Inubosaki Lighthouse, Tokyo
A Photo-tour by Mike Watt

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the desk of Joe Carducci...

Obituaries of the Week

Sportswriter Bill Gleason, 1922-2010.

Chicago has its own culture of course, but actually it has many, and yet unlike New York or Los Angeles it wasn’t stitched-together after the fact from neighboring entities. It really is one big town, the biggest one in North America (unless Houston has passed it and made it the Second City for the first time). The south side is twice the size of the northside, though its cultures don’t travel as well as the north’s anymore. Bill Gleason was a southsider sportswriter for long-gone papers going back to 1942 at the Southtown Economist. In the Sun-Times’ obit he’s quoted, “If it weren't for Wrigley Field, I rarely would have crossed Madison Street.” There are some clips on youtube of the cable show "The Sportswriters," which grew out of the WGN radio show he did with Ben Bentley, Bill Jauss, Rick Telander and others. This was not the model for ESPN, shall we say. My brother Matt tells me he got good seats behind home plate at Wrigley the day after Don Zimmer had been fired as Cubs manager in 1991. He was surprised to see Zimmer himself in the seat directly behind him. Bill Gleason was surprised too, and he came up to Zimmer and asked, “What are you doing here, Zim?” According to Matt, Zimmer answered that he was there because he liked baseball, and that if Gleason was also there because he liked baseball he was welcome to sit down next to him, which he did and they talked the rest of the game about the game in progress.

The Sun-Times is where he spent his prime years so they provide the most coverage. The Tribune’s obit , which even links to the Sun-Times!, has nice early family detail from Gleason’s sister.

And here’s a Southtown Star interview with Gleason from 2008 where he describes the first episode of "The Sportswriters" on WGN radio, October 1, 1975: “The first show was the night of the ‘Thrilla in Manilla.’ Chet Walker, the Bulls player, was at a viewing party at a hotel and he was calling Ben Bentley every two rounds.... That started it weekly, and I stayed for 12 years on radio. We did another 12 years on TV.”

Here’s a TV clip , "The Sportswriters'" Comiskey Park farewell. Not the best one maybe but there isn’t much up. The show was generally done in a darkened studio around a poker table.

[Trading card: Joe Kuhel, Chicago White Sox (1938-1943, 1946-1947), Gleason's favorite baseball player]

Billy "the Kid" Harris, street ball, Dunbar High, NIU, San Diego Conquistador, 1951-2010.  Here's a repost of a Slam feature from 1998.


[Eddie Zima Band, 1947]

Mary Wisniewski on Chicago polka style. She quotes radio host Chuck Schafer contending that the Chicago polka sound began with “music derived from Poland’s Krakow region.” But the music was changed here and developed into Honky and Push styles. Wisniewski’s article has some nice musicological detail that tracks with what we know happened in country and jazz styles. Here’s the Chicago encyclopedia page entry on the city’s polka. I was surprised how little good stuff is on youtube; guess kids don’t mess with the stuff. I taped a lot more interesting stuff from the late 80s/90s off of leased and public access channels as well as the radio, but it's all back in Wyoming. I’ll have to dig through it this summer. Here are some interesting clips though:

Li’l Wally - Cyganka, 1988

Li’l Wally information is around but no completists appear to be on the trail of his legendary trail of independent record label releases. I tried to find a catalog of his label, Jay Jay Records, but couldn’t on short notice. Sounds like it was a juggernaut, at least in the Slav neighborhoods of the midwest to the northeast. Jake Austen’s hand puppet interviewed Wally some months before he died on his cable access kids’ show, Chic-A-Go-Go. And the Miami New Times did right by him ten years ago.

• Full Circle Polka band featuring Lenny Gomulka, “Got to Go Polka”

• Eddie Blazonczyk’s Versatones - “You’re Talking to the Wrong Man”

Lenny Gomulka & Chicago Push - “Willie’s Wedding Polka”

Stas Golonka & the Chicago Masters, 1991

In the punk era, The Polkaholics roamed the taverns and published a nice polka fanzine which is defunct now. Here’s a German TV report.


Coming: The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre.


SecDef speechwriter on the fifties pre-folk revival.


The New Yorker’s economics writer (!), John Cassidy, celebrates the end of the utopian Chicago School of Economics in the person of Richard Posner and his, what, sadly too late embrace of Keynes? (piece not posted.) But this is mere political economics in the senses that 1) we do not have laissez-faire, savage Anglo-Saxon/Chicago/Austrian/Hong Kong free market economics (or there’d be no Fannie Mae, Fed, et.al.), and 2) the purpose of closing up the remains of economic freedom is to employ tens of thousands of costly, unproductive college grads. That this might in the end be destructive of that class’s own interests is a measure of where the utopian ideological drive truly lies. The whole piece seems to mistake certain mechanical questions for The Laws of Motion. Of course changes must be made; that they will not be fundamental would be the actual Austrian if not Chicago complaint. Not to say there aren’t many economists who accepting the challenge of working in or through the political realm haven’t become as ego-invested in ephemera as this or that science journalist. And indeed there are yards if not miles of rigorous theory on the shelves of our finest libraries speculating on exactly how socialist economics will work.


Take it from an associate professor of English:

“It's hard to tell young people that universities recognize that their idealism and energy -- and lack of information -- are an exploitable resource. For universities, the impact of graduate programs on the lives of those students is an acceptable externality, like dumping toxins into a river. If you cannot find a tenure-track position, your university will no longer court you; it will pretend you do not exist and will act as if your unemployability is entirely your fault. It will make you feel ashamed, and you will probably just disappear, convinced it's right rather than that the game was rigged from the beginning.”


Is this dust-up over a University of Chicago letter to applicants related to the above? Or the above the above? Who can really say…


The Battle of Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer by Judith Dobrzynski in the WSJ.


Raymond Pettibon exhibit up til Saturday in London


International Times archive

Coordinator: Mike Lesser
Secretary: Johnny Void

Database by: Geoff Laycock

Working group: Tony Allen, Mick Farren, Hoppy , Ian Hutchinson, Nicola Lane, Dave Mairowitz, Chris Osland, Pete Stansill, Robert Tasher, Heathcote Williams, Grant Warrell


The FT reports on Israeli soccer fandom.


Video Business: Theatrical tops disc movie sales for the first time in a decade.


(thanks to Andy Schwartz, Bart Bull and Steve Beeho)

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1 comment:

  1. Wally was one helluva drummer! Flashy, almost Chick Webb-like in his showmanship. Of course you know Polkacide? That group features just about every Post-Punk refugee from boring H.C./Thrash styles here in the SF Bay Area. Rhythm Pigs, Tragic Mulatto, etc. etc. They can pack Bottom of the Hill (250-ish capacity) pretty much whenever they want to.