The American Songbag

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The American Songbag

Carl Sandburg grew up with music. His father, August, truly loved it. He bought an accordion and learned to play one tune which he repeated often. A few years later, the family purchased a pump organ which Carl's older sister, Mary, learned to play. Clara Sandburg, his mother, often sang or hummed while doing her daily chores.

In the nineteenth century, singing was a popular pastime. Many composed their own musical pieces. Traditional melodies of many varieties had been brought to this country by immigrants. The sentimental and patriotic songs of the Civil War were still sung. Tunes by Stephen Foster and George Root were very popular. Hundreds of hymns were written for church services.

Group singing in church, school and other public places encouraged young and old to memorize and enjoy the songs of the past. It was a way to share popular, ethnic, religious and patriotic music.

Young Carl made his own instruments from twigs, cigar boxes, wire and whatever else he could find that made noise. Willis Calkins was a Sandburg chum. His family was musical so Willis had learned a good deal about music and playing instruments. Calkins taught him chords to play on the banjo. Banjo lessons were expensive: twenty-five cents each from a professional teacher. Carl managed to get enough money for three lessons, but no more.

Willis Calkins, John Hultgren, John Kerrington and Sandburg would gather on summer evenings in front of the cigar store on Berrien Street to sing as a quartet. The songs like "In the Evening by the Moonlight," "Carry me Back to Old Virginia" and "I Found a Horseshoe" were some of their favorites. Carl participated in various programs and musicals at the City Mission on South Seminary Street. That was the beginning of his lifelong career in performing before the public.

In his youth, Sandburg hung around the Auditorium on North Broad Street. He helped out moving scenery and making sound effects for the productions on the stage. He became familiar with many popular tunes of the 1890s as well as classical music.

Sandburg began collecting lyrics and melodies when he traveled west as a hobo. He kept a pocket notebook in which he jotted words and tunes he had heard each day. He eventually had a repertoire of three hundred songs. He bought his first guitar in 1910 and began perfecting his playing and singing.

During the 1920s Sandburg began appearing on college campuses reading his poems and singing a variety of folk songs. He discovered the audiences enjoyed the songs as much as the poems. He would often meet the students informally after the performance. They shared with him more airs and ditties to add to his collection or put him on the trail of persons who knew more old time melodies.

Other folklorists were collecting the old songs, too. Sandburg became acquainted with several of them. John Lomax was one of the best-known folk song collectors. Sharing their discoveries helped keep the old songs alive.

In November, 1927, Sandburg's book, The American Songbag, was published. It was an instant hit. A selection of 255 songs were included in the book. There were songs of hobos, railroad and canal workers, jails and prisons, pioneers, open spaces, picnics and hayrides, the Mexican border, five wars, lumberjacks, sailors, bandits and the "Road to Heaven."

The book was dedicated "to those unknown singers–who made songs–out of love, fun, grief–and to those many other singers–who kept those songs as living things of the heart and mind–out of love, fun, grief."

The American Songbag is still in print and may be purchased at the Carl Sandburg State Historic Site, 313 East Third Street, Galesburg.

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