All the world is sad and dreary
In a talk about her development as a poet, Louise Gluck relates the time when she, as a young girl, created a competition for the greatest poem ever based on what she had read so far. She chose Blake’s “Little Black Boy” and the song “Swanee River” as the finalists. Looking back on this (to me) unexpected choice, she said, “They are both totally alike, the same solitary voice raised in lament and grief.” I thought about these two poems and their connections to race, something Gluck doesn’t address, perhaps because it is so obvious. I was especially intrigued by her choice of “Swanee River,” both music and lyrics, because when I was the same age as she was, picking her own literary winners and losers, I was busily working my way through a book on my parents’ shelves, The Fireside Book of American Songs. Although I could play the melody on a recorder, I was mostly interested in the lyrics — favorites like “Bicycle Built for Two” and the songs of Stephen Foster, especially “Swanee River.” I was captivated by words like “creation” and “longing” and “plantation,” far too complicated and clearly beyond my comprehension:
Sadly I roam.
I’m still a-longin’ for the old plantation,
And for the old folks at home.
My fascination with this song has a complicated origin. When I was little, my mother used to drag me with her whenever she shopped for clothes at a small department store called Chatlins, in a small city outside Philadelphia. While she went to search or clothing, she always left me in the middle of a terrifying formation of headless white mannequins, all donning bras, and girdles. But just an aisle away there was a free-standing wooden display case, eye-level to my seven-year-old self. On its side, there was a button to press, which started a whirring sound and then a lever to pull, which opened a curtain to reveal a rural scene. (Cotton fields and barges, I’m guessing, though I don’t recall this part.) The ensuing show was free — no slot for a penny, nickel, or dime — and commenced strummed banjo music from a speaker the case. Then, a gangly, flapping marionette in blackface, the size of one of my sister’s Barbie dolls, shuffled and tapped, singing, “Way down upon the Swanee River . . . ” More… “Swanee River”