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Sandburg's pioneering 'Songbag' reissued


The American Songbag.

Carl Sandburg.

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

495 pages. $16.95 (paperback). The late Carl Sandburg probably is best remembered for "The Prairie Years" and "The War Years," the most definitive and readable biographies to date of Abraham Lincoln and the works largely responsible for the reverence with which Lincoln is held by 20th century America. Lesser known, but not necessarily less appreciated, are Sandburg's 10 volumes of lyrical poetry, including "Smoke and Steel," "Slabs of Sunburnt West" and "Good Morning, America." A prolific writer, he even authored several volumes for children such as "Rootabaga Stories" and "Abe Lincoln Grows Up." But what is largely unknown about this one-time Chicago newspaper reporter is that he was a guitar-picking folk singer.

On any given evening in the early decades of the century, after he had given a poetry reading or delivered a lecture on Walt Whitman or a harangue on behalf of Eugene Debs, he would pick up his guitar and end with a handful of songs like "Casey Jones" or "Steamboat Bill." As prolific in his singing as he was in his writing, Sandburg began collecting songs in 1921. Six years later, he published 280 of them in "The American Songbag."

His collection, now available in this new softcover edition, was unusual in that it ignored the sentimental, wholesome kind of the tunes contained in most songbooks of the time. One critic described it as "a big bandana bundle of bully ballads for big boys and their best girls." Not atypical was a song called "The Drunkard's Doom," contributed by H. L. Mencken, a friend to whom Sandburg sent a free copy of "Songbag" in return.

In his own words, Sandburg called his book a collection of "colonial, pioneer, railroad, work-gang, hobo, Irish, Negro, Mexican, gutter, Gossamer songs, chants and ditties." While at least 100 of them had never before been published and remain obscure even in 1990 -- titles like "Hanging Out the Linen Clothes" and "De Titanic" are two that come to mind -- others still echo with the folk -- even the rock -- sound of the '60s.

It's almost as if every folk music group that made it big during the folk boom of the '60s owned a copy of Sandburg's "Songbag." For here are the original versions of tunes like "The John B. Sails," made famous by both the Kingston Trio and later the Beach Boys; "The Boll Weevil Song," taken to the top of the rock and roll charts by Brook Benton; and "Mister Frog Went a Courting," which the Brothers Four turned into a megahit.

There are dozens of other songs that either made their debut in this wonderful book or were popularized by their inclusion to the extent that they are an indelible part of the folk music fabric: "Midnight Special," "I Ride an Old Paint," "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," "Barbara Allen," "Red River Valley," "Greenfields," "John Henry," "She'll be Coming Round the Mountain," to name a few.

There is an entire section devoted to "Frankie and Johnny" songs, and there is even a tune called "The Ship That Never Returned," whose chorus sounds vaguely familiar:

Did she ever return, no she never returned

and her fate is still unlearned . . .

Compare that to these lyrics from one of the biggest folk hits from the '60s, sung by the Kingston Trio about a man named Charlie who, on a tragic and fateful day in Boston, got stuck on the MTA:

Did he ever return, no he never returned

And his fate is still unlearned . . .

Sandburg said the song already had gone through several metamorphoses, having originated in 1870 and even having been performed on Broadway. "The manner and method of its next comeback," he wrote almost prophetically "is anybody's guess."

He insists in his energetic preface, and in his introductions to each tune, that these songs were meant to be sung and do not quite work if they are read aloud. Each is scored for the piano and the collection works beautifully as both a songbook and history lesson.

In his introduction to this edition, Garrison Keillor calls Sandburg, who died in 1967, "a cultural patriot." He was also the original folkie.

Mr. McGuire is a banjo- and guitar-picking reporter for The Sun Magazine.

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