Cahoots - (2010)     

Carl Sandburg

for medium voice and piano


Play it across the table.
What if we steal this city blind?
If they want any thing let 'em nail it down.

Harness bulls, dicks, front office men,
And the high goats up on the bench,
Ain't they all in cahoots?
Ain't it fifty-fifty all down the line,
Petemen, dips, boosters, stick-ups and guns -- what's to hinder?

   Go fifty-fifty.
If they nail you call in a mouthpiece.
Fix it, you gazump, you slant-head, fix it.
   Feed 'em ...

Nothin' ever sticks to my fingers, nah, nah, nothin' like that,
But there ain't no law we got to wear mittens -- huh -- is there?
Mittens, that's a good one -- mittens!
There oughta be a law everybody wear mittens.

[ 6 pages, circa 2' 55" ]

Carl Sandburg


The text is taken from Smoke and Steel, published 1920, and speaks rather plainly of a class of individuals in society referred to then as now as the "ruling class." Sandburg expressed his contempt and skepticism about so many among them whose "public service" amounted to serving themselves at the public's expense. In this time of peaking government debt -- which the ruling class loves to call "public" -- and almost a century since Sandburg penned these lines, one reads regularly in the news of all-too-many members of the ruling class, perverted, fraud-ridden and eventually convicted of crimes of which they claim without fail to be guiltless. Sandburg reminds, they are in "cahoots."  [ 1 ]


The vocabulary of the poem might well be somewhat unfamiliar, so this set of comments serves as instruction into the crimes of members of various ruling classes. 'Cahoots" means to be in partnership with others, and is not used in a positive sense: rather it speaks of conspiracies such as to defraud. "Dicks" are police detectives, while "petemen" are thieves, such as safecrackers. "To dip" into public funds is rather obvious, and Sandburg combines in one line political "boosters" alongside strong arm types and "guns" to remind how serious the game of corrupt politics is often played. A "mouthpiece" is an attorney, a "gazump" is one who raises a price at the time of signing contracts when unnoticed by another party with the simple purpose to defraud, and a "slant-head" is someone who puts criminal activities in the best public light, explaining away simple crimes with excuse, spin (slant) and rationalization. The joke about mittens is about not leaving a paper trail in case of investigation, which the ruling classes often like to say is a matter of "plausible deniability." All of these terms collect into one clear meaning in Sandburg's estimation (which I share), and that is that all too many politicians and their supporters who gain from the "pay to play" sorts of politics which is practiced behind-the-scenes are in "cahoots."


For other settings of Sandburg's texts, click here.



The vocal range is short, lying for the most part around C, such that most all voice types might find the setting apt. The 12/8 swing is filled with chromatic movement within a clear major tonic feel, and the syncopations lend a popular sense to the setting. A set of bridge material lean momentarily on the relative minor, and then one the lowered mediant though the setting is a three verse form, with a reprise of the opening at the end marked "more tawdry than before" and finally "slowing to a strut" tempo.





The score for Cahoots 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.







[ 1 ]     A perfect example of this comes from the city of Chicago, which was home to Sandburg for a time before his happy purchase of the large property in North Carolina which is now his museum.

        Forming many opinions about Chicago and in fact naming his first collection after that city, he was fully aware of the political corruption of his time. Times have not changed.

        An editorial by the Chicago Tribune which was titled "The Suicide Pacts" reads in part, "Over the past four decades, many of the folks who run our state and local governments signed suicide pacts — spectacularly unaffordable retirement deals — with public employee unions. These pacts have committed so many of today's and tomorrow's dollars to so many pension and retiree health benefits that not enough money is left to fund everything else. Hence the suicide pact analogy: Our governments — our taxpayers, that is — cannot realistically cover all of these exorbitant retirement promises. And our public workers cannot realistically expect that their too-generous benefits will survive as written on paper. Often when these retirement deals were cut, the public officials and the union leaders were, in effect, seated on the same side of the negotiating table holding hands." (27 November 2010) The Tribune editorialist is incorrect, for it has been far longer than only the "past four decades." Corruption is, as so many have noted, "the Chicago way."

        When such people supposedly working for the public good are "seated on the same side of the negotiating table holding hands," then indeed it becomes a "suicide pact" as the hometown newspaper opines, and proves Sandburg's observation -- not an allegation, but rather a firm and enduring truth about politics by "interested parties" -- that they were and still are in cahoots.

        Here is another clear summation, showing politicians in cahots. "Over the past 40 years, about 1,500 people—including 30 Chicago aldermen—have been convicted for bribery, extortion, embezzlement, tax fraud, and other forms of corruption, according to Dick Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Three former Illinois governors have gone to prison, and a fourth soon could be locked up if a jury convicts Blagojevich in his upcoming retrial on corruption and conspiracy charges." In "Why Is Illinois So Corrupt?" by Shane Tritsch, December 2010 issue of Chicago Magazine.

        From an article about a wholly corrupt city government in California came yet another mention of corruption in Chicago. "In Illinois, local officials are virtuosos in the art of 'pension spiking.' The Chicago Tribune reports that the 55-year-old administrator of Bellwood, a predominantly black, working-class suburb just outside Chicago, retired this year with a pension of $252,689—based on a salary of $472,255 in 2009, boosted from $168,593 in 2005. In his final year of employment, this frantic go-getter was paid under ten different job titles.

        At the same time, one of the state’s most affluent cities, Highland Park, paid three park officials bonuses worth almost $700,000 as they got ready to retire. One 58-year-old official will receive a pension of $166,000—more than he ever made as an executive with the parks district until his final months on the job." In "How the Road to Bell Was Paved," by William Voegeli, City Journal, Vol. 20, no. 4.

        Easily seen, those involved in 'pension spiking' were and remain in cahoots with lawmakers who allow this with the mentality of which Sandburg speaks, "what's to hinder?"

        Of course, this is true not only of Chicago but of politics in general. One reads of the growing budgetary crisis in Newark, New Jersey, "So the mayor said the union had a chance to save jobs, but did not negotiate fairly. The union said that the mayor signed a contract knowing that he would have no money to pay cops down the road. And so, we have a standoff." CBS New York, 30 November 2010.

        Knowing that there is no money to pay for the terms of a contract is a fine reflection on Sandburg's notion that these public and union officials were all in "cahoots." And as with there being no honor among thieves, when the news gets out that the deal is not working, they blame each other. This is what the poem suggests, as it reminds that each side in such politics someone else is always at fault -- "Nothin' ever sticks to my fingers, nah, nah, nothin' like that...."

        This note on a brilliantly simple text by an American icon tells the truth, about which one could document examples of politicians being in "cahoots" too easily, and of of too great a number far to list.

        Without question, this is what politics so regularly does, in which whole generations of career politicians have become wealthy by serving as "public servants," a logical absurdity and yet a truth of politics in many places and at many levels. For this, I wrote, among many rhymes, my "Politics."

        Sandburg has told us the truth, of which politicians lie so frequently and so loudly that Sandburg's poem is little known, while all the recent campaign slogans of those in cahoots are repeated like prayers of the faithful. Such is life sadly.