Monday, November 17, 2008

"Casimir Pulaski Day" by Sufjan Stevens

There is not a lot known about the background of Sufjan Steven’s song “Casimir Pulaski Day”. Whether completely fictional, or based on some form of personal experience, the song easily resonates with the listener.

Like many contemporary songs that speak of a loved one dying, there is a large element of questioning and doubt etched in between the lines. The inner turmoil between the singer and his faith become more of a theme than even the death of the loved one.
If you are unfamiliar with Sufjan’s work, you’re not alone. Born in Petoskey, Michigan in 1975, he is considered a part of the indie folk/pop culture. He has only broken out occasionally into mainstream in the last several years. You can learn more about him here.
The title for the song comes from the day the singer’s friend dies, the first Monday of March, which happens to be Casimir Pulaski Day. Haven’t heard of this one? Illinois is the only state that currently celebrates this holiday.
The song tells the story of a girlfriend, perhaps, who is diagnosed with bone cancer. Take a minute to listen and read through the lyrics:

"Golden rod and the 4-H stone
The things I brought you
When I found out you had cancer of the bone

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car to the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

In the morning through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade
I could see what you were reading

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

Tuesday night at the bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

I remember at Michael's house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

Oh the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing

Oh the glory that the lord has made
And the complications when I see his face
In the morning in the window

Oh the glory when he took our place
But he took my shoulders and he shook my face
And he takes and he takes and he takes"


There are so many touching things about this song. There’s vulnerability in the storyteller’s words, letting us glimpse such intimate moments. Did you notice, the moment of her death a cardinal smacks into the glass window of her room, is it irony, symbolism? Maybe both. Birds have long symbolized the souls of the departed. Here is an entire post devoted to the subject to check out.
Can you feel the struggle of faith throughout the song? It is blatant at times, like the phrase “pray over your body, but nothing ever happens”, but more often subtle. For instance, most of the stanzas that start with “oh the glory that the lord has made” end with a contrasting sentiment, complications, doubt and even loss.
I think this song does such a nice job of capturing the grieving process. Isn’t it often about remembering, i.e. those little snippets we get of her life? But it’s also about processing and questioning. Even the ending is apropos; the grief isn’t all packaged up and done with, but still ever present, as the singer repeats his lament to God that “he takes and he takes and he takes”.
Works: Steven, Sufjan "Casimir Pulaski Day" Illinois (2005) Asthmatic Kitty
Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

5 Responses to “"Casimir Pulaski Day" by Sufjan Stevens”

Christian Sinclair said...
March 7, 2011 at 8:52 PM

Happy Casimir Pulaski Day 2011! This is one of my favorite posts and songs and I just realized no one had commented on it. This is a fantastic song to play on guitar or uke. Too bad i do not play banjo.

I love the raw emotion in this song. Highs and lows.


Rachelle Norman said...
March 9, 2011 at 8:40 AM

I am really glad that Christian brought this post back up, because I just started reading this blog recently, and I would have missed it otherwise. This is also one of my favorite songs that tackles the topic of death and grieving.

Musically, what I like best about this song is its intimate sound. This song has such an intimate texture with the banjo and voice, especially when contrasted with the thicker instrumentation and unique sounds on other songs on this album. The gentle, rocking rhythm contributes to an intimate, lullaby-like sound. The parallel vocal harmonies also underscore the sense that this song is really about the relationship between two people, even though other people are mentioned in the lyrics. (Nothing feels more intimate performance-wise than singing in close vocal harmonies.) Of course, you already mentioned the glimpses we get of such real, raw, intimate moments in the lyrics (like, "I thought I saw you breathing"). I love it!

A great musical moment happens near the end of the song, too, with an unresolved chord on the organ followed by the tonic/resting chord on the banjo to end the song. I've had many music therapy clients say they dislike the sound of the organ because they associate it with death and funerals, and that chord on the organ underscores that discomfort then ends abruptly with a resolution on the banjo.

Thank you so much for this post! I feel now like I've been waiting for years to discuss this particular song, and I appreciate the chance to do so.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
March 12, 2011 at 7:25 PM

Rachelle,

Thanks so much for your insightful comment. It is great to have the input from someone with a strong foundation in music theory. You should really check out some of the rest of Amy's posts on music they are great.

I agree ti does sound a lot like a lullaby and even played it to my kids when they were babies to help them get to sleep. Along with Bright Eyes "First Day of My Life"


Rachelle Norman said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

I am really glad that Christian brought this post back up, because I just started reading this blog recently, and I would have missed it otherwise. This is also one of my favorite songs that tackles the topic of death and grieving.

Musically, what I like best about this song is its intimate sound. This song has such an intimate texture with the banjo and voice, especially when contrasted with the thicker instrumentation and unique sounds on other songs on this album. The gentle, rocking rhythm contributes to an intimate, lullaby-like sound. The parallel vocal harmonies also underscore the sense that this song is really about the relationship between two people, even though other people are mentioned in the lyrics. (Nothing feels more intimate performance-wise than singing in close vocal harmonies.) Of course, you already mentioned the glimpses we get of such real, raw, intimate moments in the lyrics (like, "I thought I saw you breathing"). I love it!

A great musical moment happens near the end of the song, too, with an unresolved chord on the organ followed by the tonic/resting chord on the banjo to end the song. I've had many music therapy clients say they dislike the sound of the organ because they associate it with death and funerals, and that chord on the organ underscores that discomfort then ends abruptly with a resolution on the banjo.

Thank you so much for this post! I feel now like I've been waiting for years to discuss this particular song, and I appreciate the chance to do so.


Christian Sinclair, MD said...
March 16, 2011 at 11:53 PM

Rachelle,

Thanks so much for your insightful comment. It is great to have the input from someone with a strong foundation in music theory. You should really check out some of the rest of Amy's posts on music they are great.

I agree ti does sound a lot like a lullaby and even played it to my kids when they were babies to help them get to sleep. Along with Bright Eyes "First Day of My Life"