The American Songbag, Part I: First Impressions

This summer, my mother went to an estate sale and came home with several songbooks. One of them was The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg. I was surprised to learn that this was the same Carl Sandburg as the poet! Further poking around revealed that The American Songbag had its own entry in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. It was clearly a big deal!

This songbook is a treasure. Here’s a collection of things I’ve found amusing, interesting, or delightful about The American Songbag so far:

  • Opposite the title page is a list of other works by Carl Sandburg, including, under “For Young People,” something called Rootabaga Pigeons. Rootabaga Pigeons?!
  • The copyright page includes the following notice: “[This book] is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all governmental regulation controlling the use of paper and other materials.” The American Songbag was published in 1927, but perhaps the edition I have was printed during World War II…?
  • The prefatory notes include this tidbit: “Leo Sowerby was twenty-one years old when a Chicago orchestra produced a concerto for ‘cello by him entitled ‘The Irish Washerwoman.’” Wow, can I play this?
  • Then there is Carl Sandburg’s Apologia, which I found so astonishing I think it deserves to be quoted at length: “I apologize for the imperfections in this work. I believe no one else is now, or ever will be, so deeply aware and so thoroughly and widely conscious of the imperfections in these pages.…Many considerations which have governed the selection of material…are not worth setting forth in a foreword…; they would have value chiefly and only to those who already understand somewhat the labyrinths, the twisted pathways, and roads of life, out of which this book issues. The book was begun in depths of humility…. It is a book for sinners, and for lovers of humanity. I apologize to them for the sins of the book and that it loves much but not enough.”
  • The songbook is sorted into various sections, some of which have amusing titles like “Tarnished Love Tales or Colonial and Revolutionary Antiques,” “Kentucky Blazing Star” (Kentucky gets a whole section unto itself!), “Hobo Songs” (including “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!”), and perhaps best of all, “Picnic and Hayrack Follies, Close Harmony, and Darn Fool Ditties.”

Going through the songbook page by page, I realized most of the songs were unfamiliar to me. A few I did recognize or which otherwise stood out to me:

  • “Sourwood Mountain” (p. 125): The notes say this song has many different versions. I learned one in elementary school, to a tune that is clearly related to the one in the book. The first verse is the same one I remember, but the only other verse I recall (“My true love she lives in Letcher / She won’t come and I won’t fetch her”) is not in The American Songbag.
  • The Missouri Harmony (p. 152): I was quite surprised to discover in the middle of this songbook pages reproduced from The Missouri Harmony, a shape note tune book I have only once had the opportunity to sing out of. Apparently it is said Abraham Lincoln sang from The Missouri Harmony.
  • “The Brown Girl or Fair Eleanor” (p. 156): I had to mention this song because it has my name in it! In the text, the Brown Girl and Fair Eleanor are rivals for the affections of one Lord Thomas. All three characters are dead by the end of the song, but incredibly, the tune is lilting and cheerful. Also, Abraham Lincoln may have been sung this song as a child.
  • “Weevily Wheat” (p. 161): This is the first time I’ve come across this song since I learned it in elementary school. The tune is roughly the same, though I remember singing it in a different meter. The only verses I remember are the first and the one about going over the river to the sheep. The notes say that “the Charley of this song may be the Prince Charlie of Jacobite Ballads.” I always remember knowing it was about Bonnie Prince Charlie, though somebody must have told me that.
  • “Little Ah Sid” (p. 276): This is a racist song about Chinese people.
  • “Mag’s Song” (p. 316): A second text is included with this song, and it’s actually this second text that piqued my interest. Entitled “The Orphan Girl” or “No Bread for the Poor,” it appears, I’m pretty sure, in The Shenandoah Harmony, a new shape note tune book published just this year. The text tells the tragic and melodramatic tale of an orphan girl who begs at the door of a rich man who refuses to let her in, so she freezes to death overnight. It’s like a cross between “The Little Match Girl” and Dives and Lazarus.

Coming next week: the discovery of unexpected connections between songs! (If you thought this post was esoteric, I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse. But I promise you pretty music!)

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