Before beginning this lecture you may want to

Read Singing the Songs: Whitman's Impact on Modern American Music.

In this lecture, we'll discuss the impact a poet can have on musical culture. Whitman's influence on modern American music is possibly one of the most unexpected of the Whitman legacies. Whitman loved the idea of the spoken word—oratory, recitation, and the word springing off the page was a goal of his.

Many of his poems are notably given musical titles: "Song of Myself," "Song of the Broad-Axe," "Song of the Open Road," "Dirge for Two Veterans," "Proud Music of the Storm," "To Get the Final Lilt of Songs." We've seen how affected Whitman was by the human voice: "I hear the trained soprano, she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip."

The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins. Weda Cook, a friend of the artist and Walt Whitman, is the singer portrayed by Eakins.

As much as he was concerned with developing a new American literature, Whitman also felt the urgent need for Americans to develop their own national music. He often editorialized on the topic. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of September 8, 1847, he wrote:

The Concert Singer by Thomas Eakins. Weda Cook, a friend of the artist and Walt Whitman, is the singer portrayed by Eakins.

Great is the power of music over a people! As for us of America, we have long enough followed obedient and child-like in the track of the Old World. We have received her tenors and her buffos, her operatic troupes and her vocalists, of all grades and complexions; listened to and applauded the songs made for a different state of society ... and it is time that such listening and receiving should cease. The subtlest spirit of a nation is expressed through its music, and the music acts reciprocally upon the nation's very soul. Its effect may not be seen in a day, or a year, and yet these effects are potent invisibly. They enter into religious feelings—they tinge the manners and morals, they are active even in the choice of legislators and magistrates.

Whitman had heard such a spirit gaining voice during his own day, and one can only imagine how enraptured he would have been by the native American songs of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen—all of whom were Whitmanic "working class heroes" who celebrated their roots as he did.

Let's take a look at Whitman's impact on modern American music—not only how he figures into the lyrics of many of our nation's greatest composers, but how his own songs can be heard in their own.

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