Government - (2008)
for medium voice and piano
The Government--I heard about the Government and
went out to find it. I said I would look closely at
when I saw it.
Then I saw a policeman dragging a drunken man to
[ 1 ]
It was the Government in action.
I saw a ward alderman
[ 2 ]
slip into an office one morning
with a judge. Later in the day the judge
case against a pickpocket who was a
live ward worker
for the alderman. Again I saw
this was the Government,
I saw militiamen level their rifles at a crowd of
who were trying to get other workingmen
to stay away
from a shop where there was a strike
on. Government in
Everywhere I saw that Government is a thing made of
men, that Government has blood and bones, it is
mouths whispering into many ears, sending
aiming rifles, writing orders, saying
"yes" and "no."
Government dies as the men who form it die and are laid
away in their graves and the new Government that
after is human, made of heartbeats of blood,
ambitions, lusts, and money running through it all,
money paid and money taken, and money covered
spoken of with hushed voices.
A Government is just as secret and
mysterious and sensitive
as any human sinner carrying a load of germs,
traditions and corpuscles handed down from
mothers away back.
[ 8 pages, circa 5' 00" ]
The so-called prose poem was popularized in the early twentieth century, and
this is an outstanding example of it, though quite different that that of
Walt Mason's rhyming
Lions and Ants. In additional to the prose style, the content of
Sandburg's poem is as pertinent to today as it was when it was written in
1916. (in Chicago Poems, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, pp.
173-74.) The skepticism for government has always been that an elite would
use power in a corrupt and sometimes violent manner. One sees this as easily
today as was seen in Sandburg's Chicago of 1916.
Such a sentiment has been echoed throughout time, and is not limited to this
era. One might ponder Walt Whitman's most American advice to "resist!" He
wrote clearly, "Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved, no
nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty." See
To the States.
Also one could point to Richard Cobden, 19th century British "apostle of
free trade," who wrote "Look not to the politicians; look to yourselves,"
and most pertinently, "Peace will come to Earth when the people have more to
do with each other and governments less." To believe that government is the
source of all answers is to ignore the history of governments and the
injustices perpetrated in the name of government and politics.
Composed with most singers' tessitura in mind, the melodic line is notated
in a 6/4 feeling over a standard dotted duple meter. The harmonic plan is
utterly simple, utilizing the familiar I - vi - ii - V progression found in
popular music with the vocal line reaching up to the minor third in an
otherwise major tonality.
The poem does not fall into a regular scansion nor a set of well-defined
stanzas or strophes, and yet the text fits itself through some judicious
repetition into somewhat standard song form, the A section repeating twice,
followed by bridge materials and a final repetition of the first "stanza."
Below illustrates the second stanza's opening.
Being in C major with the flattened, "bluesy" third carried in the vocal
line, the bridge materials are a modulation to the subdominant region
wherein the piano accompaniment also shares in the major-minor harmonic
The text's declamation is accelerated from a 6/4 feeling in the first
strophe to a 12/8 feeling, still in the subdominant. The harmonic rhythm's
tempo also in accelerated based on the opening scheme's whole note duration
to quarter notes.
With the mention of "money paid and money taken," vocal line becomes for
only a moment a patter song of sixteenth notes, as the tonality slips one
tone lower to E-flat major. The adage that "money is the mother's milk of
politics" is as sadly apt now as it was in 1916.
The score for Government is available as a free PDF download, though
any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited
without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for
this piano-vocal score.
N O T E S
[ 1 ]
The "callaboose" was the
local jail jail, sometimes attributed to New Orleans slang. The word is
found in “De Boatmen's Dance” (1843), music and lyrics by Dan Emmitt. In
this period, many blackface performers in minstrel shows were Irish
working-class men at a time when the Irish were not yet considered to be
"white." The word is used written in a black dialect in "De Boatmen's Dance"
as: "I wen on board de odder day / to see what de boatmen had to say; / dar
I let my passions loose / an dey cram me in de callaboose." Similar black
dialect, though deemed somehow offensive in the present day, can be found in
some wonderful African-American poets, such as in
Daniel Webster Davis'
Hog Meat, and
the fine poems of James Edwin Campbell's
Echoes from the Cabin, whose words I have also set to music. The expression, callaboose, is
therefore reminiscent of the lower classes in America of that period,
European immigrant white as well as black. The more usual and popular
spelling is "calaboose."
[ 2 ]
A "ward alderman" is an elected representative to city council for a given
electoral district. The term remains in use as it was in Chicago in the time
of Sandburg, as in England and Wales until 1974, as well as Australia and
Canada. The title is derived from the Anglo-Saxon position of ealdorman,
literally meaning "elder man," and was used by the chief nobles presiding
over shires, and the term remains in use in the city of Chicago today as
well as elsewhere. American humorist, Ambrose Bierce, instructs us further
in The Devil's Dictionary: ALDERMAN, n. An ingenious criminal who
covers his secret thieving with a pretence of open marauding.