September-October 2017


America’s First Folk Singer?

By Ross Altman, PhD

The American Songbag 3“Carl Songbird’s American Sandbag” Woody Guthrie called it—this great big doorstop of a book The American Songbag, edited and collected by Lincoln biographer and Chicago poet Carl Sandburg in 1927—the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Lindbergh flew non-stop solo across the Atlantic, and the Manassa Mauler Jack Dempsey became heavyweight champion of the world~ quite a year. Ralph Peer also “discovered” both Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family in 1927—in Bristol, Tennessee. So folk music was a-borning all over the country. Harcourt, Brace and Company published Sandburg’s Songbag in New York City—to make the year complete.

I have an original copy of Sandburg’s folk music masterpiece—with various pencil marks from previous owners—the book that first published songs like the Beach Boys hit John B Sails, the cowboy classic I learned from Burl Ives The Colorado Trail, and one of Utah Phillips favorite songs, The Good Boy, all of which Sandburg collected. It also inspired John Lomax and his son Alan to begin publishing a series of big books for MacMillan called American Ballads and Folk Songs—the first of which came out in 1934—seven years after Sandburg’s groundbreaking effort. In a large sense we owe Benjamin Botkin’s A Treasury of American Folklore—the initial entry of the various Treasury Folklore books to Carl Sandburg. 1928, the year following Songbag’s release, The American Folklife Center Archive, which is part of the Library of Congress was started by Robert Winslow Gordon. Gordon was one of Sandburg’s major contributors, and he gave him full credit for his “monumental collection” that he shared with Sandburg, including songs as seminal to America’s folk music treasury as Careless Love. That was mutual scholarship in its unstinting generosity and finest spirit.

The American Songbag 1Has any other individual had such a singular impact on the broad sense of American folk music, song and story as Carl Sandburg? The answer is no. Others (like John Lomax in 1910) collected cowboy songs, or Negro spirituals, or sea shanties~ but Sandburg collected them all, and saw the big picture of what they represented—as he rightly and first called it: The American Songbag—the songs of the people. It’s almost as if he discovered it. Had he not gone on to become Lincoln’s major biographer and then a major American poet his contributions as a folk song collector and performer would have stood out even more. As it stands, 90 years later is time enough to offer him that recognition—as America’s first “folk singer.”

According to musicologist Judith Tick:

“As a populist poet, Sandburg bestowed a powerful dignity on what the '20s called the "American scene" in a book he called a "ragbag of stripes and streaks of color from nearly all ends of the earth ... rich with the diversity of the United States." Reviewed widely in journals ranging from the New Masses to Modern Music, the American Songbag influenced a number of musicians. Pete Seeger, who calls it a "landmark," saw it "almost as soon as it came out." The composer Elie Siegmeister took it to Paris with him in 1927, and he and his wife Hannah "were always singing these songs. That was home. That was where we belonged." (Wikipedia)

Sandburg guitarBefore Sandburg had written any poems he started playing guitar, this ornate parlor size guitar sold by Sears & Roebuck in 1910, when he was 32 years old. Sandburg was born January 6, 1878, and died 50 years ago this year, July 22, 1967~the same year Woody Guthrie passed away on October 3 next month. Woody was only 55—his life cut short by Huntington’s disease. Sandburg was 89. From the year he started playing folk songs in public—1910—to the year he published The American Songbag—1927—he spent 17 years collecting and editing songs on his restless hobo travels throughout the Midwest and back east. He was born in Galesburg, Illinois—the same state as Burl Ives. In 1966, Galesburg named their college after him—Carl Sandburg College—a two-year liberal arts college that perfectly suited the poet who never graduated and went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes—two for poetry and one for his six-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln. They don’t award Pulitzers (which began in 1917) for folk music collections or he might have won four to match Robert Frost. Indeed, Sandburg published his second volume of folk songs—The New American Songbag—in 1950, the same year he published his Complete Poems, which did win the Pulitzer Prize the following year, so he was in effect competing with himself.

On the day of his Centennial—January 6, 1978—Galesburg College held concert with America’s favorite folk singer, Pete Seeger paying tribute to his old friend. It was Sandburg who came up with the best promotional line for The Weavers: “When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.” He adapted the first line from Walt Whitman~ and gave the Weavers the punch-line. It’s reprinted on their albums as well—no one could ask for a better recommendation than that. It helped launch their short-lived popular career. How ironic that the House Un-American Activities Committee would have chosen to blacklist this uniquely American quartet in 1950. They basically blacklisted America singing.

The People Yes - SandburgThe most memorable part of the concert was not a song, however, but a gem of a story Pete retrieved from Sandburg’s omnibus of a book, The People, Yes. It was about a working man—a ditch-digger—who struggled everyday to make ends meet, and then one morning learned he had been given a nickel raise. He was so cheerful that he started walking to work with his shovel on his shoulder, and while walking he was whistling a happy tune (as only Pete could do). His shovel started bouncing on his shoulder, in time with the tune, and by and by a small clump of dirt hidden in the shovel’s corner became dislodged and fell off. It turned out that two little maggots had buried themselves in that clump of dirt, and as it hit the curb one of them fell off into a small crack on the curb. But his brother—the other maggot—bounced off the curb, into the sewer and landed smack-dab into the carcass of a very dead cat. Well, he couldn’t believe his good fortune. He had never enjoyed such a meal. He started eating the carcass, and he ate, and he ate and he ate—for three straight days, until he couldn’t eat another bite. Finally he yawned happily and said, “Well, I’ll think I’ll find out how my brother is doing.” So he managed to climb out of the sewer and waddle over to the crack in the curb. He peaked down and hollered, “Is that you down there brother? How are you doing brother?” His brother looked up and barely managed to speak: “Why yes~ I’m not doing at all well, brother; I haven’t had so much as a bite to eat in three straight days. But you—why look at you brother—I’ve never seen you looking so fat and sassy. To what do you attribute your great success?” “Brains and personality, brother~ brains and personality!” That was Carl Sandburg’s tiny introduction to socialism.

Sixty-eight years after the February 12, 1959 commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, Carl Sandburg remains the only American poet ever to address a joint session of Congress—where he was invited—along with actor Frederic March—who gave a dramatic reading of The Gettysburg Address, followed by Sandburg’s address. How many Americans have been asked to follow Abe Lincoln at the podium?

In December 1961, Carl Sandburg was photographed with his friend Marilyn Monroe in New York City by photographer Len Steckler. The photos (four single images and two triptychs, or pictures in three parts) were thought to have been lost until they were rediscovered by Steckler’s son in 2010—and became public for the first time. I wrote a song, Marilyn and Sandburg’s guitar, and referred to them as “two beautiful blondes”

In 1963, for his eighty-fifth birthday President John F. Kennedy sent Sandburg a congratulatory telegram which stated that “as a poet, story-teller, minstrel and biographer, has expressed the many-sided American genius.” (Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, and American Visions by Walter G. Moss)

The following year, in February, a 22-year-old Bob Dylan showed up on his front porch in Flat Rock, North Carolina—where Sandburg spent the last 22 years of his life—and introduced himself by saying, “You’re Carl Sandburg—I’m Bob Dylan; I’m a poet too,” and gave him a new copy of The Times, They Are a-Changing. Sandburg invited him to sit down.

Carl Sandburg stampFor his centennial—January 6, 1978, the 100th anniversary of his birth, Sandburg was honored with a commemorative stamp by the US Postal Service. It was very much in keeping with his own understated public profile—a profile drawn by his friend William A. Smith in 1952, underscored by his own autograph—the first folk singer so honored.

But to my mind the highest honor bestowed upon him came not from the powers that be in Congress or the Postal Service or even the Pulitzer Committee, but from the grassroots. Sandburg was the first white man honored by the NAACP—for his support of the civil rights movement when white benefactors were few and far between. He had written a book early on that showed which side he was on: The Chicago Race Riots, July 1919, which condemned racism and foreshadowed by 48 years the July 1967 Detroit riots—in the very month of his death, now the subject of the new movie, Detroit. Roy Wilkens made him a lifetime member of the NAACP and declared him “a major prophet of Civil Rights.”

Remember Sandburg for these many achievements, his poems and his Lincoln biography—and his great American Songbag; but in these troubled times let his own words keep in mind the one thing that mattered most to him: “When a nation goes down or a society perishes, one condition may always be found—they forgot where they came from.”

Sandburg never forgot. When I hear America singing, Carl Sandburg is there.

Sandburg’s original The American Songbag is in the public domain—right where it should be—and may be downloaded for free in its 528 page entirety from the following website. No publisher put it there; no honorary committee or foundation; the American people did. Nobody makes a profit from it; anybody is entitled to use it—including you, dear Reader.

If that’s not a classic, nothing is. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 3, 10:15am Ross Altman makes his 36th annual appearance at the Church in Ocean Park on “Labor Day Sunday” for a program of labor songs and stories and topical songs; 235 Hill Street, SM, CA 91404; 310-399-1631 .

Saturday, September 9, 3:30pm Ross Altman presents a program of music and history from the civil rights movement at Loyola Marymount University, where he is joined by faculty member Kim Harris, 1961 Freedom Riders Bob & Helen Singleton and the Reverend James Lawson from the First AME Church in Los Angeles—who introduced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Gandhi’s principles of non-violent passive resistance. This is a rare opportunity to hear Rev. Lawson in a public program; he was an instrumental pioneer of the civil rights movement and member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; in the Theological Studies Village. Free and open to the public

Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton; member Local 47 (AFM); email:


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