Track of the Day: ‘Chicago’ by David Nagler

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Poetry, like music, lends itself to epiphanies—those moments where a piece of art that might have previously seemed inert suddenly seems to connect. For David Nagler, it was the music of Randy Newman that helped him appreciate Carl Sandburg’s poetry.

Both Newman and Sandburg might be seen as bards of American cities—Sandburg with his famous poems about Chicago, Newman with his barbed paeans to Los Angeles, Baltimore, Cleveland. But it was the characters that did it. Reading Sandburg’s “Mag” in Evanston, Illinois, where Nagler went to college, the “down on his luck, at the end of his rope” narrator reminded Nagler of the characters on Newman’s Good Old Boys.

That was two decades ago. Now, Nagler is releasing an album called Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, inspired by Sandburg’s book by that title and featuring guests including Jeff Tweedy and Robbie Fulks. This is the premier of “Chicago,” based on one of Sandburg’s best-known poems (you can read the text here):

It’s easy to see the allure of Sandburg’s poems for an artist—they are full of powerful images and lyrical passages. It’s equally easy to see the challenge, too: They don’t rhyme and seldom stick to regular structures that would make them easily adaptable.

“For most of the stuff I’ve written, it was sort of pop-rock songs,” said Nagler, who has worked with singer-songwriter Wesley Stace (aka John Wesley Harding), the Mekons, and other artists, as well as in his own group Nova Social. “I didn’t do much in terms of thru-composed music, where the song evolves where you write it, and it doesn’t necessarily adhere to a verse-chorus-verse structure.”

In approaching “Chicago,” he skipped over the famous opening lines and started midway through the poem—nearly three minutes into the final recording. Over an almost martial beat, Nagler half-sings, half-speaks: “They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.” A few lines later, the song suddenly opens out into a lush, inviting section: “Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” The martial beat returns; then comes a quiet new motif. “Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth”: A soft melody wafts up, almost like sun breaking through dust.

It was only later that Nagler returned to figure out the opening section:

Hog Butcher for the World,
   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
   Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
   Stormy, husky, brawling,
   City of the Big Shoulders

“I think I was intimidated by how anthemic that beginning part had to be,” he told me. To reach the challenge, he took inspiration from classical composers, two near-contemporaries of Sandburg: Aaron Copland and his “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and Charles Ives and his “The Unanswered Question.”

Reading Sandburg’s poems today, it’s easy to read them as elegiac, romantic invocations. Even the smoke of railroads and blood of the Chicago slaughterhouses recede in horror from our vantage point a century later; to a U.S. population that is confident the country is on the wrong track, they seem not like avatars of dark, Satanic mills but like the trappings of an America that was going somewhere and building things. Sandburg might not have been as dyspeptic as Newman, but his poems are not without a barb. (Another track on Chicago Poems, “Killers,” faces the horror of World War I head-on.)

The poet loved the city even as he could see its flaws clearly, and Nagler felt it was important to capture that.

“It’s a very earnest piece of writing in a way that I haven’t done that often, but I felt that this text really deserved it. If I was going to do something like this, I wouldn’t want to shortchange it. I wanted to make something that felt meaningful, even at the risk of it being cliché,” he said. “That song in particular, there had to be a sincerity to that in order for it to work. There’s a lot of sarcasm and bite to his words, but the earnestness of his sentiment in the poetry is evident.”

Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems is due out in October.

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