How Do Whitman and Music Tie Together

Whitman was musically illiterate, and yet he loved vocalism and singing and continued to find moral and artistic inspiration in song. He observed:

A taste for music, when widely distributed among a people, is one of the surest indications of their moral purity, amiability, and refinement. It promotes a sociality, represses the grosser manifestations of the passions, and substitutes in their place all that is beautiful and artistic.

Whitman was a big fan of opera, probably because of the idea of a gesamtkunstwerk, or that opera encompassed so many art forms. He spoke of his great love for particular composers, specifically the Italians, like Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini. He had favorite singers, such as Marietta Alboni, and Pasquale Brignoli (who became the subject of the Whitman's poetic tribute, "The Dead Tenor"). Whitman even wrote of himself, "Walt Whitman's method in the construction of his songs is strictly the method of the Italian Opera."

He also loved native music like the Hutchinson family singers, which he described as "heart-singing" as opposed to "art-singing." He anticipated that a simple, unadorned music would "supplant" the aristocratic traditions of the "stale, second hand foreign method," which, "with its flourishes, its ridiculous sentimentality, its anti-republican spirit, and its sycophantic influence," was not appropriate for the United States. (Whitman quoted from the Broadway Journal)

To Whitman, the uncourtly Cheney Family Quartet of New Hampshire, who he had heard in a Brooklyn saloon, perfected the "true method" of singing. Whitman described the Cheney brothers as "brown faced and stout shouldered ... awkward and strangely simple"—like farmers. Whitman noted of the sister who sang in the group that she "disdained the usual clap-trap of smiles, hand-kissing, and dancing school bends." Whitman found the plain style of these family singers "refreshing." They embodied the spirit of democracy in his poems.

The music world, in turn, has really loved Whitman. According to Michael Hovland's Musical Settings of American Poets (1999), the poetry of Walt Whitman has been set to music 539 times—more than that of any other American poet, with the exceptions of Emily Dickinson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Other records name over 1000 settings. Here are a few examples: Kurt Weill, Four Whitman Songs (1941-47); Charles Ives, Walt Whitman; Ned Rorem, War Scenes (1969), and Full of Life Wow (1989); Ralph Vaughan Williams, Three Whitman Songs (1925); Ruth Schontha, By the Roadside (1975); Leonard Bernstein, To What You Said (1976); Charles Naginski, The Ship Starting (ca. 1940); and Norman Mathews, Grand Is the Seen (1993).

It's folk and pop musicians that have used Whitman as a model the most. One might say they are of two particular "schools":

1. Apollonian: This school is a "thinking man's," more socially directed common man oriented, more concerned with enlightenment, and more about the lyrics than the artist. Well-known proponents of the "Apollonian" school are Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, and Steve Earle.

2. Dionysian This school could be seen as more apocalyptic, with a sexual/spiritual and more performative style that is about the artist and what he/she does on stage. This brings to mind musicians like Jim Morrison, Patti Smith, Sonic Youth, PJ Harvey, Ani DiFranco.

What Did Musicians Embrace of Whitman's Legacy?

These musicians embrace the raw sexuality and vivacity of Whitman's lines, like Patti Smith's "whirling dervish" energy on stage. It's also important to recognize the "pose" of certain artists like Jim Morrison to realize that image was important to them, and then to look back at the 1855 lithograph of Whitman from Leaves of Grass to see from where this influence may have come.

Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

Woody Guthrie is an example from the Apollonian school.

A promotional ad for Guthrie that appeared in Music World (July 1966) is headed in large letters: "An influence on America as strong as Walt Whitman."

Known for his unkempt appearance and rough, homespun manners, Guthrie resembled Whitman in outward appearance and style. After meeting Guthrie in 1944, novelist Sholem Asch "remembered some early pictures of Walt Whitman" and "saw the resemblance to a great extent of an American expression in terms of a man who struggled, who had a hard time, and who was very sparse in words, but had a lot of things on his mind." Woody Guthrie

Guthrie, like Whitman, celebrated the freedom of the American open road and shared Whitman's contempt for wealth, and believed his art should articulate the concerns of working people. (He himself came from working-class parents in Oklahoma. Whitman would've loved that Guthrie's father was a firefighter.)

By 1939, around the time Guthrie met Alan Lomax in New York, Guthrie was discussing Leaves of Grass at length, and was already involved in Communist Party activities and rallies.

Alan Lomax and his father were assembling a body of American folk music, interpreting it through their leftist political sympathies and their respect for Whitman's democratic project, Leaves of Grass. The preface to the Lomax book,

Our Singing Country (1941), declares Whitman's influence on the book and celebrated individualism, joys of the open road, disdain for bourgeois custom, and the emergence of a distinct American art form. For the Lomaxes, Guthrie embodied the political and cultural tradition they sought to construct and document.

"Woody really fulfilled Whitman's ideal for a poet who would walk the roads of our country and sing the American story in the language of the people ... He felt that songs should wake people up, should help people understand their environment better, and be more willing to do something about it." (Alan Lomax on Woody Guthrie, 1988)

Alan Lomax

In 1940, Alan Lomax convinced RCA Records to record Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads and strangely, the recording took place in Camden, NJ, where Whitman spent his final years.

Alan Lomax

Guthrie's best-known composition, "This Land Is Your Land," had strong Marxist origins. Like Whitman's, Guthrie's radicalism was often created and contained by his faith in American democracy. Though in many songs, he stepped outside of the social order in which he lived (think of the "outlaw" ballads like "Pretty Boy Floyd"). "This Land" has a pronounced nationalism. This was probably because it was written in that crucial period between 1940 and 1945, when he was submerged in a Popular Front culture that, in its attempt to defeat fascism, embraced Franklin Roosevelt. However, when it is sung, it comes across as an unfettered celebration of America, Whitman-style—a broad sweep of landscape, an inviting open road. As Whitman did, Guthrie aims to express a universal American democratic spirit in "This Land Is Your Land."

The song's final, more critical verses were rarely sung, though as the song became more popular towards the end of Guthrie's life, he worried that his intentions might be lost and charged his son, Arlo, with preserving them.

Determined not to compromise his father's intentions, in 1984 Arlo recorded all of the original verses of "This Land" for the soundtrack to the documentary film "Hard Travelin."

Bruce Springsteen (1949-)

Bruce Springsteen began to cover "This Land" in his concerts after he read Joe Klein's biography of Woody Guthrie in 1980. Introducing the song at a 1981 concert, Springsteen mentioned the "excluded last lyrics"—and the little-known idea that "This Land" was not a pure celebration but a critical response. Springsteen sang it "way over yonder in the minor keys" and included a slow dirge on the harmonica—though he didn't add the last lines, he gave the song a sad thoughtfulness. Springsteen said he sang "This Land" even in the face of "large-scale corruption" to "let people know that America belongs to everybody who lives there: blacks, Chicanos, Indians, Chinese, and the whites."

Springsteen was born in Freehold, NJ—just about as far from NYC as was Huntington, Long Island. And the eventual hometowns of these two men— Asbury Park and Camden, NJ—are about 50 miles apart. Whitman and Springsteen are similarly close in other matters: Both were born to working-class families. Springsteen's father worked alternately as a prison guard, fac tory worker, and bus driver, and Springsteen had a troubled relationship with him, just as Whitman had with his father. Springsteen's Catholic mother was a legal secretary. His hard youth in a working-class town led to two strong emphases on his first few albums: the celebration of the lives of everyday, working people, and a passion for the possibilities of the open road.

As he worked on his music (listening to Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and other American music icons), he was also reading a lot, primarily great American literature by writers such as John Steinbeck and Flannery O'Connor. One of the more important books he read was Pocket History of the United States of America by Henry Commager and Allan Nevins.

When "Born to Run" came out in 1975, Robert Ward of the New York Times wrote of Springsteen as a "tough," "democratic" street "punk" who was the "hero" that "Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac and Otis Redding would have joined hands over." Perhaps the closest in spirit to "Born to Run" of

Whitman's poems is "Song of the Open Road."

Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen said in 1998, "I think it was Walt Whitman who said, 'the poet's job is to know the soul.' You strive for that, assist your audience in finding theirs." Like Whitman, Springsteen was a "working-class hero" who was a true believer in the Promised Land, and that Americans were united in pursuing that dream.

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