Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of President Abraham Lincoln. He held this country together when fools and traitors would have torn it to pieces just to preserve so-called states’ “rights” and the vile practice of slavery. And yes, all those secessionists in the south were essentially traitors. They practiced treason and sedition. Anyone who wants to fly the Confederate flag should remember that they are flying the flag of a self-declared foreign country that attacked and made war on the United States of America. Anyone who thinks they’re some kind of patriot for flying the stars and bars should maybe think a little goddamn deeper.
Interestingly enough, today is also Jackie Robinson day in the MLB. Every single player on every single team wears the number 42 in honor of the first black man to officially play for a Major League team. (Confused nerds who don’t know this might wonder why all the players are honoring The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but they can be forgiven for that.) Jackie Robinson helped make this country a little more equal by braving the insults and threats he received just for playing the game he loved at the highest level he was capable of. It’s this kind of thing that the Civil War was fought for, the right for all men and women to determine their own lives, no matter what the color of their skin. Millions of people fought and died so that everyone got the same rights.
Sadly, we’re still fighting that war. And the battle extends to so many different groups, more than Lincoln ever could’ve imagined. Even though the founding fathers were really only thinking of men like themselves when they wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, the rest of us took that whole created equal and pursuit of happiness think seriously. So take a moment today to remember Lincoln and the Civil War. Take a moment to remember that the fight that ended 150 years ago is still being fought in ever more subtle and insidious ways. Toss a baseball with your kid, or watch a game. Thank that fast food worker who is making a minimum wage that falls well below a living wage. Think about all the people who were just running a marathon when the world literally exploded around them. Remember that April 15th isn’t just the day you have to run out to the post office at 11:15 pm to mail that check to the IRS. There’s a little more to it than that.
Yeah, this isn’t exactly a Christmas “song,” but it is partially sung and there’s music, so I’m going with it.
Clement Moore’s poem was actually titled “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” but I think more people use the colloquial title of the first line these days. Either way, this is one of those fond childhood memories that I can’t bring myself to disdain, even though it’s pretty corny–and this version makes it kind of sappy to boot. It’s still a lovely little narrative. And a nice thought for tonight. And given yesterday’s events, I could use some nice sappy corny thoughts. (I’ll get into it after the holidays.)
Happy Christmas Eve, everyone!
Poems are just songs without music. Words spoken with rhythm and rhyme, incantations sung with power and grace. And Maya Angelou had one of the most musical voices in poetry.
I don’t remember when I first heard this poem, but it’s always been the one I associate the most with her. I’ve never read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, so Maya Angelou has always been her poetry and voice for me. In school, we sometimes watched videos from a series she made about literature, and she helped bring it to life for me. (I don’t remember the name of the series, or what grade I was in; I think it might have been something she did for PBS or educational purposes.) The strength and joy she conveyed with just the tone of her voice, the love of language and writing that poured from her like light, that’s what made her special to me and so many others.
It was announced that Angelou passed away early this morning at her home in Winston-Salem, NC. And although her body is gone, her spirit will always live on in her words and teachings. My heart goes out to her family and friends.
I became interested in poetry, both writing and reading, because of Shel Silverstein. I worked in the school library in 8th grade (and 11th and 12th, for that matter), and there wasn’t always a class visiting. So when there wasn’t anything else to do, the librarian would pretty much let me run amok through the books, reading whatever I felt like. My wanderings brought me to A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Now we’d always had Shel Silverstein books in our house when I was a kid. The Giving Tree was an absolute staple. And one of my uncles gave my brother a copy of Uncle Shelby’s A-B-Z Book for his birthday one year, but I think I read it more than he did. (I highly, highly, highly recommend that anyone with children in their lives gives them a copy of this book at some point. It isn’t really a children’s book, but it is one of the most subversive things I’ve ever read. I grew up on Uncle Shelby, Looney Tunes, Sesame Street, and H.R. Pufnstuf. Really ought to explain everything there is to know about me.) But I’d never seen his enchanting poetry books before. Alternately heartwarming and surreal, Silverstein’s poetry was not just about things that would interest children but took children seriously as readers and people.
Which is interesting, since it seems like much of Silverstein’s career as a musician was about not taking things too seriously. He wrote some very good serious songs, but he became famous for his satirical humor with songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone.” And he was responsible for this classic stoner tune that is notoriously difficult to find copies of.
“The Great Smoke-Off” was one of those cult classics that you had to be both nerdy and cool to know anything about. It was always on Dr. Demento’s year-end countdown of silly songs. It was also a great big middle finger in the face of “decent” society. There really aren’t that many songs this explicitly about drugs that doesn’t demonize them. (Official Disclaimer: I do not use, nor do I advocate the use of any illegal drugs–or most legal ones, for that matter. I do believe drugs should be legalized, but also extremely regulated.) I always felt like I was breaking some kind of law just listening to this song.
I don’t know how much of his music is still in print, frankly. I know you can get CDs of him reading many of his poems, often with special editions of the books themselves (worth the extra money, IMO). I also know that the world is a better place for having had Shel Silverstein in it. He treated children like they were worth listening to and treated adults like they were children. It would be nice if more people got those priorities straight.