Monday, May 4, 2015

In the Land of the Midnight Sun and the All-American Pastime

The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service and Casey at the Bat by E. L. Thayer

When I hear the word ballad, my first thought is of a song, generally a long song, a very long song, sung by some tedious earnest young man or woman that tells a story, some sad and tragic tale of lost love or misspent youth. But not all ballads are songs.  In today's post, the two ballads discussed are literary ballads, poems that tell a story.  Rhyming is involved, and that is a good thing, because kids love and enjoy rhymes, particularly when the rhymes involve fun stuff like baseball and shipwrecks and frozen miners and blazing furnaces, and not un-fun stuff like the heartache of unrequited love or the futile search for the true meaning of life. 

For those of you seeking information on poetry, The Poetry Foundation is an excellent resource.

Both of these ballads are vintage.  Casey at the Bat was first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888, and The Cremation of Sam McGee appeared originally in 1907 in the collection Songs of a Sourdough.  (A Sourdough was a veteran miner from the Klondike.  Here's a fun culinary link from Parks Canada).  Both of these ballads have, over the years, appeared in multiple editions and illustrated versions.  Casey at the Bat has been presented as a silent film, several short animated films, and a television show.  Both ballads became the trademarks of live performers, the vaudevillian De Wolf Hopper performed Casey over 10,000 times on stage, beginning in the late 1880s and up until his death in 1935.  Storyteller Tom Byrne performed Sam McGee in the Robert Service Show at historic Dawson City in the Yukon for over twenty five years.  In 2006, with some revisions, Johnny Cash's spoken version of the poem was released posthumously on the two-disc set Personal File. You can listen to it  here, courtesy NPR.

So, with all this activity, you would think that these two ballads would still be widely recognizable today. But they're not, and they should be, because they're great.  

Let's fix this.

Book #11: The Cremation of Sam McGee (1986) by Robert W. Service, illustrated with paintings by Ted Harrison. 32 pages.

                                       There are strange things done 
                                                                               in the midnight sun 
                                            By the men who moil for gold;
                                       And the Arctic trails have their secret tales
                                                     That would make your blood run cold.

Poor Sam McGee.  The miner from Tennessee never struck it rich in the land of gold, and he was always cold, so very cold.  On Christmas Day, he tells his friend and traveling companion that he believes he's about to die, and exacts a promise that once he dies, his friend will cremate his body, because it is not death that Sam fears, but the awful dread of an icy grave.  His friend promises; Sam dies, and after several days of traveling by dogsled with an icy corpse, the friend arrives at Lake LeBarge, and sees the wreck of the Alice May, frozen in ice.  The friends rips up the wood from the cabin floor, feeds it into the ship's furnace, and once it begins to blaze, tosses in the corpse of Sam McGee.  He leaves, reluctant to witness the final disposition of his friend, but returns later to check that the deed is done.  When he opens the furnace door, he sees a smiling Sam, who instructs him to shut the door, because then and there is the first time he's been warm since leaving Tennessee.

Service has written a humorous ballad that tells a tall tale, and tells it well. Service nails the omnipresent environment of extreme cold in the Yukon, "…talk of cold! through the parka's fold it stabbed like a driven nail." Some of the language is a bit obscure, but explanations of unfamiliar phrases are included on the same page.  Moil means toil.  Marge means edge or bank. Also included on every other page is a description of some aspect of life in the Yukon, from the dry air that preserves everything, to the ice-fogs over the lake, to the use of a rocker box.

The paintings by Ted Harrison are excellent, full of color and slightly surrealistic.  Harrison provides one of two of the books prefaces, in which he explains his choice of artwork for the poem. The other preface, authored by Pierre Berton, offers some background on the poem and the life of Robert W. Service.

Robert W. Service (1874-1958) was born in Preston, Lancashire, England, emigrated to Canada in 1890, and died in Lancieux, Brittany, France.  He married, and had one child, a daughter, Iris.  He spent over eight years in the Yukon and sub-arctic, worked as a banker, a Balkan War correspondent for the Toronto Star, drove an ambulance for the Red Cross in World War I and also served as an intelligence officer for the Canadian Army.  He was highly successful professionally and financially as an author and poet, many of his works being made into movies in the 1920s and 1930s.

Edward Hardy "Ted" Harrison was born in 1926 in England.  An art student prior to his military service in World War II, after the war he embarked on a 28 year teaching career in a number of different countries.  He and his family eventually emigrated to Canada, to the town of Carcross, outside of Whitehorse in the Yukon.  In 1993, he moved to Victoria, British Columbia, where he continues to paint and write.

Book #12:  Casey at the Bat: A Ballad of the Republic Sung in the Year 1888 (2000) by Ernest Lawrence Thayer, copiously and faithfully illustrated by Christopher Bing.  32 pages.

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.

Casey at the Bat tells the story of the mighty Casey, the best batsman of the Mudville nine baseball team.  It's a short ballad.  The Mudville nine are trailing, and two of the weakest players, Flynn and Jimmy Blake, are next in the batting order.  Surprising everyone, the two make it on base, and now it's up to Casey, mighty Casey, to knock the ball out of the park and save the day.  It's the moment the crowd's been waiting for, and Casey milks it for all it's worth.  The first two pitches, both strikes, he allows to sail by, deeming them not worthy of his efforts.  The crowd roars to kill the umpire, but Casey silences them with a single motion. Then, the third pitch is thrown, the mighty Casey swings, and…

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children's shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville-mighty Casey has struck out.

Pretty much says it all.

There is a wealth of Casey books out there, some better than others.  In my opinion, Christopher Bing's is the best of them all.  The book is total joy of the game, the illustrations, artwork, recreated newspaper articles, photographs, engravings and other ephemera are incredible. Casey was a 2001 Caldecott Honor Book.  Get it, read it, pour over it.  It's a grand slam.

It's an interesting fact that the man who wrote the most famous baseball poem in history was no fan of the game itself.

Ernest Lawrence Thayer (1863-1940) was born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the son of a successful woolen manufacturer and his wife.  Ernest attended Harvard University was a philosophy major, where he contributed and was president of the Harvard Lampoon.  Classmates included George Santanya and William Randolph Hearst.  After spending a year abroad after his graduation in 1885, Thayer traveled to California at Hearst's request and became a member of the staff at the San Francisco Examiner.  It was during his tenure there that he composed Casey at the Bat, inspired by a Harvard classmate who was captain of the Harvard team.  Thayer considered Casey to be on par with the the rest of his writings for the newspaper, neither better or worse.  After Casey, it wasn't until 1896 that Thayer attempted any more literary work, four ballads for a New York newspaper.  He returned to working for the family mills and traveling.  In 1940, he attempted to begin writing again, but his health prevented him, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in August of that year. 

Ernest Lawrence Thayer biography at American National Biography Online

Christopher Bing is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design and a resident of Massachusetts.  His other books include Lincoln Shot: A President's Life Remembered and The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

An interview with Christopher Bing at Publishers Weekly

1 comment:

  1. I used to teach that Robert Service poem to my ninth graders! I'll have to check out the illustrated version.

    I had a book for you to find, but in describing it in the comment I never posted, I figured out enough detail to search for it & I found it. The Witch and the Ring, by Ruth Chew. So you helped me, indirectly! :)