Included are three poetry readings, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “For You, O Democracy!” selections from “Song of the Open Road;” and 8 pieces of period music from around 1856, when the second edition of Leaves of Grass came out with the first appearance of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” This is the kind of music that would have been in Whitman’s ear, some of it along lines very congenial to his poetic ideas. Scroll to the end of this post for the full album notes. (And check out Sailaway Shirts for regular and LGBT-themed T’s.)
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Here is an expanded version of the album notes for the CD Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry: Words and Music:
Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry – Words and Music!
This reading of Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (and two shorter poems) is produced for a reading of the poem in lower Manhattan on Independence Day, 2013, followed by an actual ferry crossing to Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry Landing, an event sponsored by The Odyssey Club (https://theodysseyclub.wordpress.com). Some of the music Whitman enjoyed is also included here.
Ferries from Manhattan to Brooklyn are now offered by New York Water Taxi, making the run from Pier 11 (near Wall Street) to Fulton Ferry Landing, now DUMBO under the east end of Brooklyn Bridge, which was not there in Whitman’s time.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892), “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
An innovator in poetry as well as lifestyle, Walt Whitman reinvented American verse with his self-publication of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Its 12 poems, including the signature work “Song of Myself,” used a free verse style modeled on the psalmic poetry of the Bible. The 1856 edition added the three works on this album along with quite a few more. Whitman was intent on creating a uniquely American idiom, and for this he was praised by Emerson and other transcendentalists.
Whitman worked as a freelance journalist and teacher in the Brooklyn and Manhattan area, then moved to Washington D. C. during the Civil War years, to work as a volunteer military nurse. After the war, he stayed on as a government bureaucrat, and continued his publishing activity, adding poems to Leaves of Grass throughout his life. Struck down by illness in 1873, he moved to his brother’s place in Camden, New Jersey.
Whitman was probably bisexual – Certainly this was so in terms of his affectional orientation, although the extent of his actual sexual experience is undocumented.
During the mid-1850s, when the first two editions of Leaves of Grass came out, he was living and working in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and often traveled by ferry between them. The poem makes the trip into a declaration of love for America and its diverse people, a fitting manifesto for the young poet.
Stephen Foster (1826-1864), “There’s a Good Time Coming, Boys!”
In his short life, Stephen C. Foster created a body of song that defined American popular culture. “Oh Susanna,” although it brought almost no income to Foster, became the anthem of the gold rush prospectors after ’49; “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” written for Foster’s wife, has remained a romantic classic; and “Beautiful Dreamer” is among the most beautiful songs in English. Moderns may criticize the condescending racism implicit in the superficially pro-negro minstrel songs, or the smarmy sentimentalism of songs like “The Old Folks at Home,” but such criticisms do not diminish the magnitude of his accomplishment. Based in Pittsburgh, Foster teamed with Edwin Pearce Christy and his group Christy’s Minstrels to promote minstrelsy and other popular ballad types. Intellectual property law was in its infancy – Everyone but the composer made money on his songs; He died in poverty in New York’s Bowery district.
“There’s a Good Time Coming, Boys” (1846), with lyrics by Scottish poet Charles MacKay, was among the very first songs Foster composed – He was 20, and had just dropped out of college and moved to Pittsburgh. It is rather unlike his later works – Its boundless optimism and championing of progressive causes like pacifism, child labor laws, and universal education suggest a political activism not characteristic of his career as a whole. Perhaps he was influenced in this by the song’s dedicatee, a certain Mary D. Keller of Pittsburgh, whose identity has not been established. MacKay’s lyric was also set by Henry Russell (represented on this album with other songs), and the piece was allegedly a popular anthem among immigrants coming through New York harbor, probably in Foster’s version, as Russell’s tune is not as memorable.
Henry Tucker (1826 – 1882), “Jennie is Waiting”
Henry Tucker was a Brooklyn church musician and family man, who composed hymns, cantatas, and popular ballads. His best remembered song is the Civil War lament, “When This Cruel War Is Over.” Songs like “Jennie Is Waiting” were very popular, but in all honesty, not spiritually akin with Whitman, who was more inclined to idealize strong, working-class mothers and immigrant women. Tucker might be said to represent the background from which Whitman was departing.
William Vincent Wallace (1812 – 1865), “It Is the Happy Summertime”
William Vincent Wallace lived an astonishingly varied and adventurous life for a pianist and composer. Born in Ireland, in 1835 he emigrated to Australia with his wife, his sister, and his brother, all musicians, and began concertizing there. But separating from his wife, he went off on a whaling expedition, followed by a tiger-hunting expedition, and eventually ended up in Mexico City as an opera conductor. Stopping in New York on his way back to the British Isles, he was one of the founders of the New York Philharmonic Society. The year 1845 found him in London, recitalizing on the piano and composing operas that made it to Covent Garden (with his sister, a soprano, in leading roles). But in 1850, he married an American woman, moved to New York, and even acquired American citizenship. Alas, in later life he developed vision problems, and died blind and in poverty.
Henry Russell (1812 – 1900), “Rockaway” – “I’m Afloat”
Henry Russell was a British baritone whose family background was in London’s Jewish community – His father was the chief Rabbi of London. He was active in America from 1835 – 1841. “Rockaway” – whose lyric by Henry John Sharp was separately anthologized by Longfellow – rhapsodizes about the southwestern shore of Long Island (Rockaway is the location of JFK Airport today). Long Island was of course Whitman’s home turf – Paumanok in his poems. The song’s “Iris” refers to the mythical personification of the rainbow, so it makes perfect sense that she is chased away by “Sol” – the sun.
Russell’s “I’m Afloat” waxes enthusiastic about life at sea, with a text by British poetess Eliza Cook. The themes of freedom and challenge to authority present in the song would have been heartily embraced by Whitman.
J. R. Thomas, “Let Us Speak of a Man as We Find Him”
J. R. Thomas, who composed “Let Us Speak of a Man as We Find Him,” and also James Simmonds, the lyricist, were affiliated with Buckley’s Serenaders, a blackface minstrel group in New York that was the main competitor of Christy’s Minstrels, the Pittsburgh group affiliated with Foster. Although it seems incongruous to moderns, blackface entertainment was considered a “progressive” genre idealizing Negro life (cf. Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and one indication of that fact is the performance of serious ethical songs in “whiteface” by the same groups. This is such a song, and might well have been heartily approved by the likes of Walt Whitman.
George Root (1820 – 1895), “Reaper on the Plain”
George Frederick Root was a music educator with roots in a farming community in western Massachusetts, a background clearly reflected in his admiration for the “reaper on the plain.” Informally trained in Europe, he worked all over New England, and composed many popular songs with his lifelong associate Fanny Crosby.
Walt Whitman’s “For You, O Democracy”
This short poem recalls some of the themes of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” but adds an erotic hint. Outside Whitman’s work these political and sexual themes would be contradictory – Their combination here makes the lyric quintessential Whitman.
Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” (selections)
Whitman did not actually travel much. Here he invites us to accompany him on an American walkabout of the mind and spirit. We include sections 1, 5, 9, 14, and 15.
Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer”
“Beautiful Dreamer,” probably Foster’s last song, was published posthumously in 1864, although it may have been written as much as 2 years earlier. Like “There’s a Good Time Coming, Boys,” perhaps his first song, it is strikingly different from the rest of his work.