Spoon River: Smith, Goodman and Masters


VERY well, you liberals,
And navigators into realms intellectual,
You sailors through heights imaginative,
Blown about by erratic currents, tumbling into air pockets,
You Margaret Fuller Slacks, Petits,
And Tennessee Claflin Shopes—
You found with all your boasted wisdom
How hard at the last it is
To keep the soul from splitting into cellular atoms.
While we, seekers of earth’s treasures,
Getters and hoarders of gold,
Are self-contained, compact, harmonized,
Even to the end.
Edgar Lee Masters: Thomas Rhodes; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

What is is about poetry or musical lyrics that moves us so differently than just prose? So thoroughly? So deeply it can make grown men cry?

Why can we remember lyrics of songs we heard decades ago, poems we learned in grade school, yet can’t recall what we had for breakfast or what was on the shopping list? Lyrics, perhaps, are different from poetry in that they are interwoven with the rhythm, melody and harmonies of the song, which itself carves a rut in our memories. But both stick with us better than mere words.

Why can a song send shivers up our spine, raise the hair on our arms, sweep us away with its emotions, helpless like driftwood on a river? Why can it dredge up those emotions years later, outside any context?

(Listening to Trio Los Panchos playing La Malagueña Salerosa today brought goosebumps to my arms… but almost any version of that song does that. Perhaps it comes from hearing it played live, by buskers, along the malecon in a warm, romantic February evening in Mexico… and today, years later, it has the power to transport me there.)*

In The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin writes,

One characteristic of poetry and lyrics, compared to ordinary speech and writing, is compression of meaning. meaning tends to be densely packed, conveyed in fewer words than we would normally use in conversation or prose. The compression of meaning invites us to interpret, to be participants in the unfolding of the story. The best poetry – the best art in any medium – is ambiguous. Ambiguity begets participation. poetry slows us down from the way we normally use language; we read and hear poetry and stop thinking about the language the way we normally do; we slow down in order to contemplate all the different reverberations of meaning it contains.

Which strikes me as a singularly catching insight. I thought about those words recently while transcribing some Bob Dylan songs for our local ukulele group. Dylan is a master of ambiguity. Which makes his songs so much more memorable, I suppose. How odd, how amazing, I thought, that I can still remember the words and chords to his songs I learned to play 30 or 40 years ago.

And they are songs that have no particularly deep emotional contact for me – not necessarily songs I listened to with a lover, shared with a friend or simply found emotionally fulfilling. But I can simply pick up a uke and strum out Memphis Blues Again, It Ain’t Me, If Not for You, I Shall Be Released and The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest or a dozen others without giving much thought to words or music: they just spill out like old, familiar tunes, even though I haven’t likely played them for years.

It’s like the music is a meme; an intellectual virus that binds itself to your DNA. Like herpes; one it takes hold it never leaves and unfolds itself when called out. How and why does it do that? It’s the subject of many books, including Levitin’s.

I HAD fiddled all at the county fair.
But driving home “Butch” Weldy and Jack McGuire,
Who were roaring full, made me fiddle and fiddle
To the song of Susie Skinner, while whipping the horses
Till they ran away.
Blind as I was, I tried to get out
As the carriage fell in the ditch,
And was caught in the wheels and killed.
There’s a blind man here with a brow
As big and white as a cloud.
And all we fiddlers, from highest to lowest,
Writers of music and tellers of stories,
Sit at his feet,
And hear him sing of the fall of Troy.
Edgar Lee Masters: Blind Jack; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

Masters’ Spoon River Anthology – a wondrous collection of prose poems – came to mind, a little while ago, when I sat down to arrange a song by Michael Peter Smith, for ukulele: Spoon River. It’s a song we played on guitar and jammed to back in the late 70s. A song that still moves me to hear and play today. I had almost forgotten it, but suddenly it emerged from my memory and called out to be played.

Old guitar habits had to be unlearned, so I reworked it for the ukulele; a version I can share with the local group and other uke aficionados online. Sure, it won’t have quite the same resonance for me as it had when we got together 40 years ago, young men and women, lit with passion and fire for music and song and each other’s company.

“Remember me, I lived for music,” wrote Leonard Cohen. We did, then. And when I find an old song on iTunes that I used to play back then, I remember, too.

But I’m sure it will still feel good to those who feel the music in their veins today.

Until Youtube came along, I had only ever heard it by that master musician and superb guitarist, the late Steve Goodman. Goodman died an untimely death in 1984, leaving behind a musical legacy of remarkable calibre. I have since learned to appreciate the subtle lyricism – and ambiguity – of Smith’s writing, as well as his style of playing that is often so different from Goodman’s cover versions. Smith also wrote The Dutchman, another brilliant song recorded by Goodman in 1975.**

Smith’s Spoon River goes like this:

All of the riverboat gamblers are losing their shirts
All of the brave union soldier boys sleep in the dirt
But you know and I know there never was reason to hurt
When all of our lives were entwined to begin with
Here in Spoon River

All of the calico dresses, the gingham and lace
Are up in the attic with grandfather’s derringer case
There’s words whispered down in the parlor, a shadowy face
The morning is heavy with one more beginning
Here in Spoon River

Come to the dance Mary Perkins I like you right well
The union’s preserved, if you listen you’ll hear all the bells
There must be a heaven, God knows I’ve seen mostly hell
My rig is outside, come and ride through the morning
Here in Spoon River

Somehow I’ve always associated it with the collection of prose poems by Masters, although there is no direct link anywhere in the lyrics. Reading Masters again this week – I still have the paperback version I bought in 1975 when it was printed – I started to wonder how I had ever got that idea. But yet, Wikipedia tells us it is so:

Besides “The Dutchman,” which Suzy Bogguss covered on her debut effort Suzy in 1981, Smith classics and their interpreters include “Spoon River,” a song inspired by the poems of Edgar Lee Masters, which was also recorded by Goodman.

So somehow I understood the connection, even before the days of Wikipedia. Perhaps it was the Civil War connection that runs through both the song and the poems. Or simply the song’s title.

Masters’ poems have always moved me, drawn me in, captivated me. They are rich, deep, and subtle; yet carry that ambiguity that makes you read and reread each one to try and absorb it. I hadn’t read them for many a year, until this week when I pulled the book off the shelf and dipped into it after so many years. It still amazes and astounds me.

YOU may think, passer-by, that Fate
Is a pit-fall outside of yourself,
Around which you may walk by the use of foresight
And wisdom.
Thus you believe, viewing the lives of other men,
As one who in God-like fashion bends over an anthill,
Seeing how their difficulties could be avoided.
But pass on into life:
In time you shall see Fate approach you
In the shape of your own image in the mirror;
Or you shall sit alone by your own hearth,
And suddenly the chair by you shall hold a guest,
And you shall know that guest,
And read the authentic message of his eyes.
Edgar Lee Masters: Lyman King; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

Here’s a beautiful reading of one poem, from a Youtube clip:
And here are the words themselves:

THEY brought me ambrotypes
Of the old pioneers to enlarge.
And sometimes one sat for me—
Some one who was in being
When giant hands from the womb of the world
Tore the republic.
What was it in their eyes?—
For I could never fathom
That mystical pathos of drooped eyelids,
And the serene sorrow of their eyes.
It was like a pool of water,
Amid oak trees at the edge of a forest,
Where the leaves fall,
As you hear the crow of a cock
From a far-off farm house, seen near the hills
Where the third generation lives, and the strong men
And the strong women are gone and forgotten.
And these grand-children and great grand-children
Of the pioneers!
Truly did my camera record their faces, too,
With so much of the old strength gone,
And the old faith gone,
And the old mastery of life gone,
And the old courage gone,
Which labors and loves and suffers and sings
Under the sun!
Edgar Lee Masters: Rutherford McDowell; from Spoon River Anthology, 1915

The “mystical pathos of drooped eyelids/ And the serene sorrow of their eyes.” And “when giant hands from the womb of the world/ Tore the republic.” Moving stuff. Such imagery. Such power. You can really feel Levitin’s “compressed meaning” here.

But there aren’t any other songs I know of from or inspired by Masters, so instead I think I’ll pick a few other tunes written or performed by Steve Goodman for an upcoming ukulele evening. Introduce the local players to his talent and style; something to enjoy and aspire to (maybe his Chicken Cordon Bleus?). And in that mix I expect there will be at least one more tune by Smith.

Or maybe I should mix it with some Fred Neil. Little Bit of Rain. The Dolphins. The Water is Wide… So many choices… so much good music to share.


* I get the same goose-bump-shivers reaction from some opera arias – Nessun Dorma, Un Bel Di Vedremo – which can reduce me to tears – O Mio Babbino Caro and O Fortuna among them. But just for fun watch this video of Malcolm McLaren’s 1984 version of Madam Butterfly and see how opera and pop can intersect and still be emotionally satisfying for both genres.

** Compare the two versions here:

Steve Goodman:
Michael Smith (poor quality):
and an older Smith:

Personally, I prefer Goodman’s arrangement, although his chord changes in the last line of each verse are on different beats from Smith’s. I guess it’s probably because that;’s the version I first learned. My arrangement is in F.

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  1. Pingback: The difficult art of reading poetry | Scripturient: Blog & Commentary

  2. >Somehow I’ve always associated it with the collection of prose poems by Masters, although there is no direct link anywhere in the lyrics.

    I think the lyrical reference is “all of the brave union soldier boys sleep in the dirt”; the recitations in SRA are messages from the grave. The song picks up where SRA leaves off; life goes on in Spoonriver, no less fraught at this pivotal moment in history than before.

    I’ve always wondered whether “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” isn’t the Southern answer to Spoonriver, or vice versa.

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