Friday, September 23, 2011

Friday Files: I Hear America Singing (Walt Whitman)

Music makes a soundtrack for my life.  I enjoy music, all kinds and styles.  Sometimes what I listen to fits in with something I’m writing.  If I’m writing retro, there’s no better way for me to get into the mood and psyche of a time than to listen to music from that period.  At other moments, I listen to what I like and that can range in a given day from AC/DC to Mary O’Hara or from Glen Miller to Nickelback. My musical tastes are, at the very least, eclectic.

 Since I consider poetry another kind of music, one without accompaniment but that sings to the soul, my preferences in poetry range from the traditional masters of the art to modern verse.  I have many favorites, too many to choose just one or even a few.

 In recent days as the nation paused to remember 9/11, however, I found my thoughts turning toward America, our nation both before and after the pivotal events in 2001.  Such pondering brought to mind the lines of a favorite verse from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, an early collection that he originally self-published before it appeared available to a wider audience after his death around the turn of the last century.   Although I like all of the poems in the slim volume, I Hear America Singing ranks as my favorite of the lot.

 Read the poem today and it makes a stark statement how careers have changed in just over a hundred years.  You don’t run across many shoemakers, hatters, boatmen or woodcutters these days.  Most of the shoes and hats sold in the United States are – sadly – made in faraway lands.  There are a few boatmen but I doubt that their boats resemble those of the 19th century much.  And while I know many people who cut their own wood to use as fuel (and have even cut some wood myself in the past) and a few who sell wood to others, I don’t know anyone who would or could write down “woodcutter” as their occupation on their income tax forms.

 You don’t see many ploughboys these days and farmers may sing along to their radio, CD player or IPOD but not many sing spontaneously.  The same applies to the young mothers at work – most of which work outside their home and to the girls sewing or washing, both once hand tasks down now with machinery most of the time.

 Occupations have changed in more than a century’s time.  Some have vanished or become specialty work done to preserve the old ways of another era.  New jobs and job titles, different ways to earn a living have appeared.   Music remains with us and I believe it always will because the human animal enjoys music but how, when, and where we listen has changed.

 Although some people may sing as they go about their daily labors, few will sing their own songs or sing without singing along to some favorite tunes.   Many of us like to unwind and relax while listening to music but it’s not as common to gather around a piano or someone playing an instrument as it was when Walt Whitman wrote his poem.  We’re far more likely to listen to the stereo or to a personal electronic device.  As much as I love music, I now often have music streaming on my laptop as I work rather than playing on the stereo in the corner of my office.  Church for many of us may be the one remaining place where we sing out with others, live, not recorded.

 The important thing, however, is that America is still singing.  We may not sing the same songs as in Whitman’s time or during the era when the book of poems first reached a mass audience but we’re singing.  Music continues to feed us as a nation and a people.  Music still speaks to our hearts and touches our souls. 

 Like Walt Whitman, I hear America singing and I like the sound.

 I think the poet would too.

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