Land of Lincoln


I thought a lot about Abraham Lincoln while I was growing up, which I guess is not very unusual in Illinois.

Today (as I write this) is Lincoln's birthday, and though his life is getting more important to me now, it was his death that mattered to me as a boy. It was by thinking about Abraham Lincoln that I first began to wrap my mind around the idea of death.

My dad spent decades working his way to the top of the hierarchy of the Knights of Columbus in Illinois, so our family criss-crossed the state constantly. Belleville, Peoria, Beardstown, Carbondale, Mattoon. It is a BIG state.

Around 1973, we saw the Dickson Mounds, a prehistoric earthworks containing a lot of Native American burials. They had the side of one of the mounds carved out to expose the bones, and they'd built a vast visitor's center where you could stand behind a railing and look at the skeletons. It was dark and dramatically lit, and there's a photo of a 9-year-old me standing at the railing, looking rather green in more ways than one.

Someone in our family also took some photos of the bones, and we came across them whenever we'd pull out the family slide projector. The last time we saw those slides, my mother talked about wrapping them up and sending them to the tribal government for proper disposal. She probably did, if I know her.

Anyway, it was on that same trip that we visited Lincoln's tomb in Springfield, and I half expected to see his bones, too. Of course, someone had stolen his body long ago and, when they got it back, it had to be locked firmly away so they'd stay put. But I remember imagining what his skeleton looked like.

Around that age, I read "The Death of Lincoln: A Picture History of the Assassination" by Leroy Hayman, from Scholastic. I still have it. One night, with that book at my side, I woke up around 3 AM thinking of Lincoln's recurring dream, the one where he was traveling toward some "indefinite shore" in a "singular, indescribable vessel." I freaked myself out, and couldn't stop my limbs from shaking in my bed.

And then I thought the little bust of Lincoln on the shelf above my headboard was moving. It was made of white wax — my mother had given me a quarter to get it made by a machine in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

That's when I woke up one of my brothers and told him what was happening. It was the night my child's mind seized on death, finally understanding it was real, something truly in the world, a pervasive thing. He told me not to worry about it, rolled over, and went back to sleep. In retrospect, that was pretty much the right answer.

The night culminated when I heard a terrible groan that seemed to come from everywhere at the same time. It was undeniably a ghost — I can still hear it in my head, it was awful. Now that I'm older and things are starting to come back to me, I realize it was exactly the same sound my dad — who was a champion snorer — would make down the hall when he rolled over in his sleep.

Obviously, that was a long time ago and I've very much moved on. But I do occasionally feel a bit like spitting at the mention of John Wilkes Booth.


Editor's Note: This is the 13th installment of my fool-hardy attempt to write something every day for the entire month of February.


Carl Sagan, Ten Years After

      a telescope in Times Square, 1933


(Sorry for all the autobiography lately, but today is the 10th anniversary of Carl Sagan's death.  Bloggers worldwide are marking the date with remembrances.)


When I was 15, I thought a bit about becoming a priest. 
My family was Catholic, and I loved the Catholic Church. I also had already been obsessed with astronomy for about six years, and now my thoughts were just mature enough to start worrying over some of the hard questions this background presented.
Astronomy made it obvious that the world was much older than the Bible claimed — the Bible was wrong.  In fact, I saw there was no way to confirm virtually anything in the Bible. The Creator himself suddenly seemed mythical compared to the easily confirmed natural laws I was starting to understand.
But a universe without God, so far as I could tell, was a horrible place — meaningless, without beauty, amoral, loveless.  The evidence seemed to be forcing me into a sad and frightening universe in which I certainly did not want to live
Knowing no other alternative, I thought about entering the priesthood — that is, of handing myself over completely to faith. Evidence and reason were leading me where I didn't want to go, so I toyed with the idea of turning a blind eye to them.  If a "good" universe was the only tolerable kind, maybe I would have to simply assume one, regardless.  I was deeply conflicted, and didn't know what to do.  I remember a lot of pain about this.
By an astounding coincidence — divine intervention? — Carl Sagan's Cosmos debuted on public television exactly one week after my 16th birthday. The series turned out to be a 13-hour, carefully reasoned, gorgeously dramatized argument.  And this argument was an elaborate answer to precisely the very question I was struggling with. 
Cosmos argues that the universe is profoundly beautiful and meaningful, and it demands an ethical response from us — even, or especially, when we view it without the supernatural.  Sagan argued that the only ethical response to the universe we know in the 20th century, given the challenges of that century, is to get the whole evidence thing, and the whole reason thing, right.

We've got see the world as it is and not how we wish it was. 

The guy in the turtle-neck sweater spent 13 leisurely hours SHOWING why the character of the physical universe, and of our origins it it, oblige us to embrace a humane, ethical, rational, evidence-based world view.  The evidence shows us a universe that is not only beautiful, but beautiful in precisely such a way that it requires from us an ethical, loving response.
For the next couple years, my synapses flowed with the greatest antidepressants on Earth.  It was a mind-blowing and delicious religious experience.
I won't go into every twist and turn of my intellectual and spiritual development since 1980 — there'd be a lot to dredge up.  It will suffice to say that Carl Sagan's Cosmos was among the most important events of my life.  The Celestial Monochord would certainly not have existed without it — surely among Carl's greatest contributions to mankind!
I will add that Sagan's importance has unexpectedly deepened since 2001's dual attacks on Western Civilization — September 11 and Inauguration Day.  Lately, I terribly miss Carl Sagan and what I think of as his ethics of epistemology, as I call it — his sense that we have a moral obligation to resist baloney.

I mourn his inability to be here to remind us of who we used to aspire to be — a humane civilization based on reason, evidence, and the universal rule of just laws.  No one has taken his place.


Look Away From The Cross

Sara Carter
Sara Carter (photo by David Gahr, from Dunson and Raim)


In early March 2004, I first heard the original Carter Family's 1940 and 1941 recording sessions — their final sessions together as a trio. By coincidence, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" happened to be Number One at the box office that week. So, the Carter Family's "Look Away From The Cross" sounded to me like a sharp crack of thunder.

I can always count on the original Carter Family to send my mind reeling. They always seem to dissipate some thick fog of nonsense the world has become so accustomed to that we've forgotten it even existed. They seem to get directly into the core of something, though I'm never able to predict just what that something's going to be.

Of course, whether they're "really" getting to the heart of something is separate question, but regardless, their music powerfully projects that effect. No wonder the folk revival of the 1950's and 1960's — always seeking antidotes to American Cold War culture — so lovingly embraced the original Carter Family.

Anyway, I won't rehash the media noise generated by "The Passion of the Christ." I'll only mention that the Gospels themselves spill very little ink on the suffering of Jesus — they even emphasize that he suffered less that most people executed by crucifixion. What really interests the Gospels is the resurrection. As I understand it, the fetish for fluids, whips, and naked men is primarily Medieval.

I guess "Look Away From The Cross" is probably a Negro spiritual of the Holiness Church variety — it ain't German Catholic, I can tell you that from personal experience. Below, I've repeatedly written out the chorus instead of just writing "Chorus" in order to give you a feel for how insistently Sara Carter cries out "look away." In customary Carter Family fashion, Sara sings lead and plays autoharp, Maybelle plays guitar and "seconds" the lyrics with rejoinders (shown in parentheses), and A.P. Carter just kinda sings when he's good and ready. The overall effect is as bright and catchy as any advertising jingle.


Look away from the cross to that glittering crown
From your cares, weary ones, look away
There's a home for the soul where no sorrows can come
And where pleasure will never decay

(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Though the burdens of life may be heavy to bear
And your crosses and trials severe
There's a beautiful hand that is beckoning "Come"
And no heartache and sighings are there

(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Mid the conflicts of battles, of struggles and strife
Bravely onward your journey pursue
Look away from the cross to that glittering crown
That's a waiting in heaven for you

(weary ones, look away from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown (glittering crown)
(look away, weary ones, from the cross to the crown)
From the cross to that glittering crown

Recorded October 4, 1941, New York City



Fifty Miles of Elbow Room

Rev. Ford Washington McGee

I'm listening again to the original Carter Family's final, brilliant sessions of 1940 and 1941. It turns out they recorded "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room," which I mostly know from Harry Smith's Anthology, performed in 1930 by Rev. Ford Washington McGee and his congregation. It's currently also available at the great music blog Long Sought Home.

I never understood the song before because of the chaotic revival meeting atmosphere created by McGee and company, which makes the lyrics pretty impossible to decipher. I mean, what ABOUT fifty miles of elbow room?

Well, focusing on the version by Sara and Maybelle Carter — with all the loving orderliness and earnest precision we've come to expect from them — the words are easy to figure out.

It turns out the song has pretty much the same theme, or belongs to the same gospel tradition, as the Tom Waits song "Down There by the Train," which was recorded by Johnny Cash on his first American Recordings album. In this tradition, the purpose and the power of the song are in the limitless, extreme, radical inclusiveness of salvation.

Maybe a kind reader can help out this old Catholic-atheist with the terminology and a Biblical passage ... in any case, these songs insist that your station in life doesn't matter, your race or gender don't matter, and not even the gravity of your sins matter — NOTHING can keep you from living in paradise, so long as you repent, so long as you meet us "down there by the train."

The emotional power of these songs is in the radical character of the forgiveness they promise. They are all about the total and extreme nature of the idea that heaven is open to ANYBODY. There's so much room for absolutely everybody in Heaven that its gates are a hundred miles wide — entering Heaven, you have fifty miles of elbow room.

If you're in need of a reminder that there's something good in Christianity, turn off your TV and spin some old 78's.


Twelve hundred miles its length and breadth
The four-square city stands
Its gem-set walls of jasper shine
Not made with human hands
One hundred miles its gates are wide
Abundant entrance there
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

When the gates swing wide on the other side
Just beyond the sunset sea
There'll be room to spare as we enter there
Room for you and room for me
For the gates are wide on the other side
Where the flowers ever bloom
On the right hand on the left hand
Fifty miles of elbow room

Sometimes I'm cramped and crowded here
And long for elbow room
I want to reach for altitude
Where fairer flowers bloom
It won't be long til I shall pass
Into that city fair
With fifty miles of elbow room
On either side to spare

[ Recorded by the Carters, October 14, 1941 in New York, NY ]

I insist that Tom Waits' song "Down There by the Train" is loosely based on an old negro spiritual, "When The Train Comes Along." Versions of this earlier song were recorded by Henry "Ragtime Texas" Thomas and by Uncle Dave Macon. The lyrics below are from Uncle Dave Macon's recording in Richmond, IN on August 14, 1934. Macon provided the vocals and banjo, with Kirk McGee also on banjo and Sam McGee backing up on guitar.


Some comes walkin' and some comes lame
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Some comes walkin' in my Jesus' name
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Oh, when the train comes along
Oh, when the train comes along
Oh lord, I'll meet you at the station
When the train comes along

Sins of years are washed away
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Darkest hour is changed to day
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along


Doubts and fears are borne along
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
Sorrow changes into song
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along


Ease and wealth become as dross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my boast is in the cross
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along


Selfishness is lost in love
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along
All my treasures are above
Gonna meet you at the station when the train comes along

Darwin and Relativism

In a recent NPR segment on religious anti-Darwinism, a young person-of-faith declared that evolution could never be finally, completely proven, whereas Creationism has already been completely proven — "because the Creator," she explained, "is in my heart."

Of course, I puzzled over how this could be understood as proof. What if something else — Darwin, maybe, or perhaps The Destroyer — is in MY heart? Or what if her "heart" changes and she loses faith? How then are we supposed to decide how the biological world came to be the way it is? It would seem that proof based on "hearts" leaves us standing on awfully shaky ground.

The religious opponents of evolution frequently accuse evolution of encouraging "relativism," although I've never heard an explanation of just what this means, as if it were self-evident. It's not self-evident. Science has an awfully firm bedrock foundation for its knowledge — the world, the physical universe, the empirical field. Science changes its mind about things more often than, say, the Vatican because its understanding of the universe deepens and expands, and because it openly corrects its mistakes.

How is science somehow more "relative" than other forms of knowledge, particularly those based on faith (that is, "the heart")? Although Christianity has The Bible (actually, a wide variety of Bibles) to turn to for continuity, it's difficult to see that Biblical study has brought great consistency to Christian thought, either between sects or within a given sect over time. To base belief (that is, what one holds to be the case), on what amounts to culture and desire is relativism so extreme as to make me dizzy.

On July 9th, I had to re-read a paragraph on the front page of the New York Times three or four times.

It was in an article about an editorial written by the archbishop of Vienna, a close confidant of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he asserted, in essence, that Darwinian evolution is not true, and belief in it might not be compatible with Catholic faith. This assertion was apparently encouraged by Benedict, in a betrayal of Pope John Paul II's general friendliness to evolution and science.

What made me stop and re-read, over and over, was the NYTimes article's seventh paragraph, which reads, in its entirety:

Darwinian evolution is the foundation of modern biology. While researchers may debate details of how the mechanism of evolution plays out, there is no credible scientific challenge to the underlying theory.
What's so startling is that these facts were printed in an American newspaper as facts. Most news venues would cut this paragraph on the grounds that "sounds" biased. But it only sounds biased because the facts it contains ordinarily go unreported, or are reported only as the assertions of an expert who is, in turn, contradicted by an opposing expert.

So American journalism has its own trouble with relativism in its tendency to "seem" objective while actually measuring that objectivity by its appearance. It would be better to BE objective regardless of appearance — as the New York Times has done in this case — or even to be openly biased. To be both biased and to pretend to offer objective journalism results in a relativism unlike anything Darwin would have tolerated.

Terri Schiavo and Science in the News

Robert Fludd

At some point during the Terri Schiavo fiasco, I saw a right-wing spokesmodel on CNN say something like, "I was in a coma once and I'm sure glad they didn't kill ME!" So, the neurologist she was debating pointed out that she didn't have the same condition that Schiavo had. CNN's host didn't bother to get this little confusion sorted out during the segment — not even close. But the science did matter, desparately.

Although the science of neurology was the core of the case, all the thousands of hours of coverage did not add up to America's education about the brain. That was a lost opportunity. A great thumbnail discussion of the science behind the Schiavo case was on NPR's Talk of the Nation's Science Friday, but I'm not sure Americans listen to NPR a heck of a lot ...

To my ears, the great unspoken core of the story was the anxiety most people seem to feel around the idea of the brain as the organ of awareness. I find most people dislike the idea that your awareness, wakefulness, personality, emotions, identity, spirituality, consciousness, and soul are all artifacts generated by the meat inside your skull. When the meat goes bad, there's no more "you." As neurology advances, I bet we're going to face increasingly counter-intuitive brain conditions and even more vexing medical and moral decisions. We better get ready, in part by facing the facts.

None of this is to say that the main conflict was between science and religion — after all, Americans of faith were mostly on science's side on this one. As I watched Shiavo's parents fight to keep Terry hanging around, I kept hearing the Carter Family sing "Don't you want to go to heaven? Don't you want God's bosom to be your pillow when the world's on fire?" Perhaps Pete Seeger's re-writing of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes might have been more persuasive, but I didn't think of it until recently.

Orphan Songs, Part 8:
Motherless Children Have a Hard Time


Much as in yesterday's story of misheard lyrics, Columbia recording engineers misunderstood the title of Blind Willie Johnson's 1927 recording "Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" to be, instead, "Mother's Children Have a Hard Time," which is how it appeared in their notes and on the label of the publicly-released record.

The background to this story is perhaps less amusing than yesterday's. Willie Johnson's mother died when he was only a baby, probably just before 1905. His father's second marriage didn't go well — to punish Willie's father, his stepmother dashed a pan of lye into 7-year-old Willie's face, blinding him permanently. Willie soon dedicated his life to singing spirituals, and is today often considered one of the best ever recorded.

"Motherless Children Have a Hard Time" is arguably his most widely-known recording. Just on the face of it, the performance is great — its vocals are intense, and its slide "blues" guitar is dazzling. But in light of Johnson's biography, it's one of the most amazing 3 minutes in all of audio recording history. I actually find it a little shocking, as if it's perhaps too intimate a glimpse into Johnson's life. Here are the lyrics, as best as I can tell:

Well, well, well ...
Motherless children have a hard time
Motherless children have a hard time,
When Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

Nobody on earth can take your mother's place
When Mother is dead, Lord
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place
When Mother's dead
Nobody on earth takes Mother's place,
When you were starting, she paved the way
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Your wife, your husband may be good to you
When Mother is dead, Lord
Be good to you, when Mother's dead
Your wife, your husband may be good to you,
But they'll find another and prove untrue
Nobody treats you like Mother will when,
When Mother is dead, Lord

Well some people say that sister will do
When Mother is dead, Lord
Sister will do when Mother's dead
Some people say that sister will do,
Soon as she's married, she'll turn her back on you
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Father will do the best he can
When Mother is dead, Lord
Well, the best he can, when Mother's dead
Father will do the best he can,
But so many things a father can't understand
Nobody treats you like Mother will

Motherless children have a hard time
When Mother is dead, Lord
Motherless children have a hard time, Mother's dead
They'll not have anywhere to go,
Wanderin' around from door to door
Have a hard time

The misreading of "motherless children" as "mother's children" is no great sin. Johnson is admittedly hard to understand — I challenge you to confirm my transcription of the lyrics. It ain't easy.

But the well-heeled, white male recordists from up North apparently heard the song as mourning the fact that children have a hard time because they are "Mother's." Their misunderstanding, however unintentional, was neither random nor neutral. It replaced the story that already existed in the song with one that already existed elsewhere — in the ideas of race and gender that they took with them into the recording session. In doing so, they took the high regard for motherhood actually expressed in the song and turned it almost exactly up-side down.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Dark Was The Night: Sleep

For about 10 years, I've wanted to write — or at least read — a good nonfiction book about Night. According to a review in the New Yorker (which seems to take all my best ideas), it looks like I've got my chance — "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past" by A. Roger Ekirch has just been published by Norton.

As I've written before, for most of human history, Night was dark. On a moonless night, you couldn't see your hand in front of your face or where your feet were stepping. In the largest capital cities in the world, the buildings around you appeared as little more than sillouettes against the stars of the Milky Way. (That is, Night in the past is something you need to research if you want to undestand it.) If and when I read Ekirch's book, I'll tell you more, but the New Yorker focuses on Ekirch's discussion of the "first and second sleeps," mentioned by writers from Plutarch and Virgil all the way through John Locke.

Through artificial lighting, we've expanded Day to encroach on Night as far as we possibly can. When we finally turn off the light and go to sleep, we insist on sleeping continuously right through to the alarm.

But people — or at the very least, Western Europeans of a certain class — used to find themselves quite in the dark as soon as the sun went down. Any light had to come from an open flame of some sort. So they would go to bed, enjoying several hours of good, deep, REM sleep and then they'd wake up around midnight or so. This was the first sleep. After one to several hours, they'd experience the second sleep, which would take them to the rooster's crow. Between the first and second sleeps, they'd get up and do chores, or talk, study, pray, reflect, or, one supposes, have sex.

The National Institute of Mental Health recently did a study in which it deprived subjects of artificial lighting for up to 14 hours for several weeks at a time. They found the subjects naturally gravitated toward a first and second sleep. The period between possessed "an endocrinology all its own," with elevated levels of prolactin, best known for stimulating lactation in nursing mothers. The period between sleeps was peaceful, restful, and reflective — and the first sleep's dreams still lingered at the edges of consciousness.

Ekirch writes, "By turning night into day, modern technology has helped to obstruct our oldest path to the human psyche."

Thank You Mr. Sagan



Oh, it's nice to return
to the twentieth century
blockaded from invasion
and lame radio shows
about how Jesus
loves the athletes,
his rich children,
who can achieve
so much with a cleat.

In The Letters To
The Mount Wilson Observatory,
every day blazed
with irresistible keys
brandished by real citizens
with big sensitive heads
compelled to tell us
the almighty resided
in the Orion Nebula
or that humans used
to live on the moon
until it melted.

Oh, please can we
all be muscular
jeweled fools
beating our wings
at gaps in what passes
for understanding
in a vestigial wind.

The world is not
a polyphonic monster.
If possible, may we
refrain from eavesdropping
on erudite ancestors?

Consider what we've done
to virgins, toasting on an open fire
or hosting that obsession with reptiles,
all sacred and chicane. Humans
are a moony crew, a ship's list.
Still lost but stalking the location
of a true galactic home.
Neither frozen, nor crackpot,
not noble, not alone.




This poem contains a reference to an online exhibit of very eccentric letters received from the general public by The Mount Wilson Observatory.

For today's entry of The Celestial Monochord, my heartfelt thanks to Minneapolis poet Jennifer L. Willoughby. Her first book of poems, Beautiful Zero, will be published by Milkweed Editions in late 2015. Contact her @hellowilloughby.

The Monochord has also published her poem "Your Wife As Krakatoa."


Orphan Songs, Part 6:
The Orphan Trains

Orphan train

Folksongster Utah Phillips wrote a song called "Orphan Train," which I first heard at the American Banjo Camp 2004. I'd forgotten about it until Celestial Monochord reader Marjorie G. suggested I write about Orphan Trains. Today's entry is based almost exclusively on the results of her research for the Monochord.

Once I had a darling mother, though I can't recall her name
I had a baby brother who I'll never see again
For the Children's Home is sending us out on the Orphan Train
To try to find someone to take us in

Take us in, we have rode the Orphan Train
Take us in, we need a home, we need a name
Take us in, oh won't you be our kin?
We are looking for someone to take us in

The UK had long engaged in various forced migrations of orphaned, delinquent, or just plain poor children. Since at least Shakespeare's time, kids were kidnapped from the streets of London and shipped off to "people the colonies" of the Americas and Australia. In the form of the "farm school movement," the practice continued in the UK through WWII.

I have stolen from the poorbox, I've begged the city streets
I've swabbed the bars and poolrooms for a little bite to eat
In my daddy's old green jacket and these rags upon my feet
I've been looking for someone to take me in

The Children's Home they gathered us, me and all the rest
They taught us to sit quietly until the food was blessed
Then they put us on the Orphan Train and sent us way out West
To try to find someone to take us in.

In 1854, the newly-formed Children's Aid Society started running orphan trains out of New York and Boston, carrying children from what Society founder Charles Loring Brace called "the dangerous classes." Conditions in these cities were indeed horrifying for homeless and orphaned children who had often immigrated from their native lands to escape similar conditions. Prominent businessmen funded Brace's orphan train project in an effort to head off the social turmoil they feared would result from such conditions.

The Catholic New York Foundling Hospital joined in, sending thousands of its "foundlings" west. Believing a strict policy of anonymity would help to save the most children, the hospital set up a kind of turntable near the hospital entrance. An "unwed mother," presumably, would place her infant on the table, ring a bell, and the baby would disappear into the hospital without mother and nun ever having to see each other.

Nobody knows how many orphans were shipped west. The 200,000 often quoted by the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America is considered very conservative. In 1910, the Foundling Hospital reported that it alone had sent 2700 children just to Wisconsin — and the Orphan Trains went everwhere there were railroad tracks.

The farmers and their families they came from miles around
We lined up on the platform of the station in each town
And one by one we parted like some living lost-and-found
And one by one we all were taken in

Now there's many a fine doctor or a teacher in your school
There's many a good preacher who can teach the Golden Rule
Who started out an orphan sleeping in the freezing rain
Whose life began out on the Orphan Train.

In the accounts given by the riders of the Orphan Trains, they universally thought they were sent out on the only Orphan Train. Only decades later did they realize there were at least hundreds of such trains.

The riders also consistently report that the scene at the train stops was terribly anxiety-producing. The Children's Aid stops were highly publicized in advance to maximize the number of adopters, and the children were displayed, studied, groped and then usually rejected. But they feared being still on the train at the end of the line. Girls older than toddlers were the last to be picked.

Unquestionably, some riders didn't do well, suffering beatings, neglect, and all manner of abuse while also being used on farms as chattel slaves. But the president of the Orphan Train Heritage Society objects that most writing about the riders emphasize horror stories, while it seems most riders did fairly well. Apparently, Utah Phillips' hopeful song isn't too unrepresentative. A lot of ordinary and extraordinary people in twentieth-century American towns started out riding the Orphan Trains.

Thanks, Marjorie, for your help on this. Thanks also for taking in a lot of strays over the years, on top of raising the rest of us yahoos.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Shaking the Hell Out of Folks

image adapted from poster at the Library of Congress

I think more deeply about pre-War folk and blues than I do most other music, so maybe it's me ... but it seems striking how many of these old recordings have lines that ring in your head, multiplying and deepening and getting sweeter the more you think about them.

Probably, that's one thing Bob Dylan learned from the old music ... but that's another story.

Uncle Dave Macon rewrote an old minstrel song into a song satirizing the automobile. His "Jordan Is a Hard Road To Travel" was a "topical" song when it was recorded in 1927, even though its sentiments were already old-fashioned. You can hear it at Hongking Duck, and the New Lost City Ramblers have a great cover of it on "40 Years of Concert Recordings."

For now, never mind the fascinating chorus with its reference to the River Jordan. Let's look at one of the verses:

You can talk about your evangelists
You can talk about Mr. Ford, too
But Henry's a-shaking more Hell out of folks
Than all the evangelists do

There are multiple jokes packed into these few lines.

The most literal is about the suspension system, tires, rough idle of those 1920's Ford flivvers, not to mention the terrible roads they had to travel. A ride in the country in a Model-T Ford was so rattling and convulsive that Uncle Dave considered it even more violent than the jostling you suffered in the Holiness and Pentecostal church services sweeping the USA in the 1920's. So, that's one layer of the joke, and a pretty funny one.

Uncle Dave disliked the automobile, in part because it put him out of business as a mule teamster. He also disliked the disruption the automobile caused in society, in the way people lived. Ford's production methods and the cars they produced brought wrenching changes in the economy, social hierarchies, family structures, and geography of the USA, and fast. These shocks were widely discussed and debated.

So maybe we have the convulsive services of the Evangelists trying to shake people until all the hellishness comes out of them, while Ford's disruptions are bringing out the hell in people in quite another sense. And in this battle, Dave thinks Ford is winning.

But there's still one more joke in this little verse. Uncle Dave would have known very well that the Ford Motor Company had long campaigned to instill "moral purity" and "family values" in its autoworkers. They sent company reps to the workers' homes for surprise inspections, looking for booze, tobacco, loose women, soiled linens, etc.  Henry Ford, like the evangelists, was trying to save souls.

As part of this effort, Ford also sponsored old-time fiddle contests with enormous cash prizes, believing that white, down-home fiddling was more wholesome than the hot African American-influenced jazz and blues so popular in the era. Every mention of these contest I've seen treats them as a strategy by Henry Ford to instill his beloved conservative values in his workers and customers. 

I haven't made a thorough study of it, but I suspect Ford also, or instead, wanted to improve the reputation of his product.  He wanted to associate his newfangled contraption with old-time values, thereby dispelling the stench of sex, jazz, and chaos that seemed to hover around the automobile in the minds and noses of many potential customers.

I doubt Uncle Dave's sharp wit could have missed the irony that Henry Ford was pushing nostalgia and wholesomeness at the same time he was creating a sinful new American culture.

You can talk about your evangelists
You can talk about Mr. Ford, too
But Henry's a-shaking more Hell out of folks
Than all the evangelists do

Orphan Songs, Part 4:
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

The Carter Family, via The Country Music Hall of Fame

"Will the Circle Be Unbroken" is one of the best-loved, most-recorded songs ever. I've always loved it, but never quite understood it — it's rather oblique. What circle are we talking about, exactly?

I was standing by the window
On one cold and cloudy day
And I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away

Can the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky

Lord, I told the undertaker
Undertaker, please drive slow
For this body you are hauling
How I hate to see her go

I followed close beside her
Tried to hold up and be brave
But I could not hide my sorrow
When they laid her in the grave

Went back home Lord my home was lonesome
Missd my mother she was gone
All my brothers sisters crying
What a home so sad and lone

It's no wonder I've been puzzled. It turns out that this version was based on an earlier song that gave a full explanation, but the story given in the earlier version has now been mostly forgotten, thanks to the new, familiar one.

A. P. Carter, of the great Original Carter Family, pieced together the more familiar version a couple of days before it was first recorded, during a session on May 5, 1935. He completely re-wrote the original song's verses — the storyline of the song — but left the chorus essentially unchanged. So, today, we all know the original refrain, but not the narrative that gives the refrain a literal meaning. (This was probably an improvement, songwriting-wise.)

The original song seems to have been first published in a hymnal in 1907. The idea of the verses was that, back in the good old days when our family was all together and happy and harmonious, we all literally sat in a circle — maybe around the hearth — warmly enjoying each other's loving presence. (You remember that, don't you?)

But now, years later, many of us have died and gone to heaven, breaking that circle. The chairs are emptying, one by one. But don't despair! In Heaven, that circle is slowly being re-assembled — member by member, as we all pass on — and some day, the circle will be unbroken once again.

But there's a catch ... well, beyond the fact that you'll have to die to complete the story, there's an even more serious catch. It's not a sure thing that everybody in the family will wind up in heaven to help complete the circle. Some of us may wind up ELSEWHERE.

So the song was written to ask, in essence: Will you go to Heaven when you die? Or will your loved-ones sit in Heaven, in their broken circle, looking mournfully at that empty chair where [ your name here ] should have sat, but was instead led astray? Will the circle be unbroken? It's up to you! It will be unbroken, but only if you quit your sinful ways and are saved!

Both versions of the song are "alter call" songs, used to invite you to come forward to the alter to be saved. Here's the lyrics to the original:

There are loved ones in the glory,
Whose dear forms you often miss.
When you close your earthly story,
Will you join them in their bliss?

Will the circle be unbroken
By and by, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
In the sky, in the sky?

In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior
Now they dwell with Him above.

You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

You can picture happy gatherings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below.

One by one their seats were emptied,
One by one they went away;
Here the circle has been broken—
Will it be complete one day?

Note that both versions have nearly the same melody as the old Negro spiritual, "Glory, glory, Hallelujah, Since I Lay my Burden Down," which you'll find on your copy of the Harry Smith anthology.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
Part 1: Dem Bones

Third Man Ferris Wheel
(from "The Third Man")

During a recent morning commute, a small-time public radio station played "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" by the obscure Selah Jubilee Quartet. Sounding like an intensely cool, rhythmic barbershop quartet, they sang about how the prophet Ezekiel saw a wheel "way in the middle of the air." I'd heard such songs before.

But suddenly, they changed direction and broke into "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone's connected to the knee bone ..." The station then played two other Ezekiel songs from the quartet tradition, and they all sang about dry bones in the valley and how they're connected.

Maybe you're way ahead of me here, but ...

It turns out all those Ezekiel songs (with their wheel in the middle of air), and "Dry Bones" by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (it's on the Harry Smith Anthology), and "Dem Bones," which I grew up thinking of as a secular children's song (shin bone connected to the knee-bone, etc.) are all part of the same song complex, held together by the Book of Ezekiel.

You know, maybe I should read that Bible thingy someday ... NAH!

Part 2

The Vatican Observatory

Vatican observatory
Father George V. Coyne, S.J.
Director of the Vatican Observatory

Pope John Paul II died a few hours ago. One of his first actions after becoming Pope in 1978 was to appoint a commission to study the matter of Galileo, with an eye toward formally setting the record straight regarding the Church's attitude toward his condemnation 350 years before. In Vatican jargon, John Paul wanted to move toward Galileo's "rehabillitation." In 1984, the commission presented its findings and acknowledged that the Church had been in error when it put Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The "pardon," as it was popularly called, was taken as high symbolism by the public, but from a point of view within the Vatican, I doubt it was much of a stretch.

John Paul II said, without much fanfare, that the Bible holds no specific scientific information and discusses natural phenomena for metaphorical purposes only. He was alright with Darwin. Long before John Paul II, the Vatican had never been as backward about to astronomy as people imagine. A Vatican observatory was built in the 1500s to help with calendar reform, and was formally established as The Vatican Observatory in 1891. Since then, it's been among the most advanced astonomical institutions in the world. It's staffed by a bunch of Jesuits, naturally.