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I Hear America Singing; or "Leaves of Grass" revisited, like
Airdate: August 1964

Last Update: 02-26-2012

Show Description
The nuttiness is spreading in our land. I get on this plane recently. An emergency trip - out to Chicago and back again. No time to make reservations, and it seems that when you're really in a hurry the only seat you can ever get is on the Champagne - Red Carpet Flight. The others are all booked up weeks ahead of time. And so I find myself going through this great big chute. You don't walk into airplanes anymore; they inject you into them. The airplane is mainlining people. You walk through this tube - the same air-conditioning and Muzak that is in the terminal - you never know you're on a plane. It's like a big tunnel that runs from the Time-Life Building straight to Chicago. This really is the Jet Age. In order to Keep Your Finger on the Pulse of Life you've got to do it at 700 miles per hour, or slightly below the sonic barrier. Because, Dad, that's where it's happening. That is where the story is being spelled out. But one thing - at subsonic speeds you've got to really look at it hard in order to see it, because sometimes it's moving so fast it's just a blur. Trailing smoke. You've got the picture. I am injected into this enormous silver monster, floating gently on a sea of barely audible Muzak, the sweet Karo Syrup of Existence. I am strapped into my seat. My safety belt is a delicate baby-blue shade, matching the cloud-blue and spun-silver interior decor of this about-to-hurtle projectile. Muzak rises to a crescendo and we take off. Instantly we are high over this big chunk of land, and the world has become a blurred Kodachrome slide. A man today never feels so alive as when he is hurtling from one point to another on the azimuth. My nerves are tingling. I'm ready to devour Life in great chunks. In the Champagne - Red Carpet - First Class - VIP - Very Expensive Section. Silently the red velour is rolled out and baby-blue and silver houris are plying me with stuff to eat - which if my mother knew I was eating she would really know I have gone to hell. By God, caviar and Moet brut and diced lamb's-liver pate at 8:17 A.M., over Altoona. Suddenly, with no warning, from behind me I hear the sound. I have never heard anything like this ever in a jet plane. Or in a biplane for that matter. Or even a Fokker trimotor. I'm sitting there knocking down the caviar, slurping up the champagne, when from behind me I hear the sound, the unmistakable twang, the soul-searing biting buzz of a guitar! A plaintive G-minor chord mingled with the sounds of ice cubes and plastic swizzle sticks . . . Boing . . . boing . . . twaaannng . . . And then, a heartbroken voice. It's the voice of America Singing: 500 Miles! ! ! ! It echoes through the pressurized cabin, bouncing from one curved baby-blue bulkhead to the next, and finally fading out somewhere near the "Occupied" sign at the far end of our sealed capsule: 500 Miles! ! ! ! For crying out loud! A Lonesome Traveler! On a jet flight for Chicago, Meat Packer to the World, City of the Broad Shoulders, where the fog creeps in on little cat's feet. A Lonesome Traveler in the Champagne - Red Carpet - First Class - VIP - Very Expensive Section! I turn around. And here's this angry, beat-looking kid sprawled out there in his foam rubber seat, his safety belt unhooked, a battered guitar case beside him. This angry kid all tanned from Fire Island where the Crusade for Truth is swelling like a mighty organ chord that cannot be ignored. He's tanned, and wearing a pair of Levis carefully torn in all the right places. It cost his old man a lot of bucks for that pair of Levis - torn, faded, and worn as if they've been worn building the Union Pacific by hand, fighting the Terrible Depression of the Thirties, scrabbling out of the stony soil a hard crust of bread for a poor, honest man, just a-livin' in This Land, just a-tryin' to Love and a-tryin' to Understand and Live as a simple, pure Heart with his Fellows, his Brothers and Sisters all over This Land. A pure White Dove, a-sailin', a-sailin', a-sailin'. . . The Times They Are a-Changin' This guy's singing there and the tears are just a-streamin' down between the champagne glasses and the olive picks. . . There was hardly a dry eye in the house. I am surrounded by a horde of college students, all empathizing like mad with the plight of the Common Man Fighting Against the Forces of Evil, the forces of a rotten, decadent Society. This kid is on his way to his junior year at the University of Iowa, all the way Champagne Flight, all the way it's been all of his life. If I Had a Hammer There he sat, honest tears a-coursin' down those hardened, tan cheeks of his, hardened by so many hard, terrible, awful, wrenchin' scrabblin' weeks at Bar Harbor. WE SHALL OVERCOME He's getting real bugged now. WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED The stewardess bends over to say, "More champagne, sir?" "Yeah, fill it up . . ." If I Had My Way I'm sitting there and all of a sudden I realize that today's Lonesome Traveler travels only First Class. And more and more I realized that the plight of the Common Man is now in the hands of the Uncommon Man. With plenty of jack. One of the wildest things about this whole new Suffering Traveler bit that is spreading throughout the campuses today is that the higher a guy is in actual social status, the more he empathizes with the real strugglers. More and more you'll find that the "folk" groups are the most clean-scrubbed, most obviously well-heeled people you'll ever see in your life. You just can't imagine Peter, Paul and Mary ever hungry. Or Joan Baez, either, for that matter. There I sit with champagne glass in hand, trying to figure out just exactly why all this vaguely bugged me. It reminded me of something else that I couldn't quite remember. Sort of like trying to remember just how Swan Lake goes, or something. The guitar hit a lovely A-minor chord as the feckless youth behind me plumbed even deeper into his social consciousness. The stewardess's baby-blue bottom undulated up the aisle, toward Chicago. And suddenly I knew. Marie Antoinette! And then I recalled something out of my almost completely forgotten European history courses. Marie Antoinette - now it came back. Just before the French Revolution . . . I could even remember a few pedantic phrases from my European History II textbook: "Just before the French Revolution there was a tremendous upsurge of interest in and empathy for the peasant on the part of the idle nobility. It reached the point where Marie Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting, with selected noblemen and their pages, would spend weekends in the country, dressed as milkmaids and simple peasants of the field." Aha! "In the forests around Versailles the decadent French court built simple peasant cottages in which to live the 'rough' life and to sing the praises of the rough singular man living his hard, stony life, tilling from the soil of France the barest essentials of existence. They actually did empathize with him. There was a movement led by Rousseau, the Rousseau Naturalism Movement . . ." I toyed moodily with a morsel of Belgian mint jelly as behind me the Simple Peasant of the Field once again raised his sorrowful voice: This Land Is Your Land My left hand made the chord changes instinctively as he sang out. Another section of European history came floating back to me on the scent of delicate candied baby yams: "It is difficult to imagine what the real peasants and laborers and milkmaids of France thought when they observed Marie Antoinette and the noblemen at play. Some French writers believe that the sight so enraged them that the course of Revolution was then truly set." Nervously, I signaled for more wine. I thought, high over Ohio, of the folk music audiences and singers I had seen. There hadn't been many Downtrodden and Defeated people in those crowds. Could it be that the lower down a man really is on the social scale, the less he identifies with the Folk Freedom Fighters, until finally, in the actual slums themselves, you'll find no guys singing: This Land Is Your Land I looked down through 37,500 feet of cumulus mist. I wondered how many guys were looking up out of tenements at this whistlin' lonesome jet carrying all these guys in the Champagne Section, winging on their way toward Northwestern, Indiana University, U.C.L.A., the University of Michigan. First Class. A big blonde across the aisle, with an O.S.U. sticker on her Pan-Am flight bag, had joined in. Another white dove a-sailin' and a-sailin'. I wondered if that chick knew what a tumbrel was. Hard to say. American people are not historically minded. She probably thinks that a tumbrel is a seven-letter word (46 Across) meaning "a small cart." A tall, skinny, crewcut kid, tweed jacket, Daks slacks, with a "Ban the Bomb" button in his lapel, bumped past me, trailing the scent of Brandy and Benedictine. He was heading for the john. Ban the bomb. I guess that kid figures that history started in 1945. Everything before that was some kind of bad TV show starring Rip Torn as the company commander who chickened out. I started in on the mousse. Not bad. Ladyfingers soaked in Virgin Islands rum. The big blonde grinned at me over her copy of The Realist. Yes, by God, I was surrounded by Realists. Another phrase from Eur. His. II jiggled into form: "One school of thought holds that what happened in France can happen in any society at a certain point in that society's existence, when life becomes so unreal, abstract, to so many people that they begin to long hungrily for the life that they imagine is 'Real,' usually the life of men who are tilling the soil or suffering social injustices at the hands of the imaginers themselves." Hmmmm. Seven or eight pilgrims had joined in the singing, led by a thin, sharp-faced, dark-haired, high-cheekboned girl in a burlap skirt from Jax. A nice bottom. I wondered if she knew what a tumbrel was. This crowd was as much at home in a jet plane as they were in a taxicab. Belting it out: I'm a lonesome, lonesome traveler along the hard, rocky road of life . . . sitting in the back seat of a Yellow Cab, the meter ticking away. I'm a lonesome, lonesome Yellow Cab Rider a-travelin' on the old man's Diners' Club card. One thing I've noticed about jet flying is that once you're at cross-country altitude, you rarely feel the slightest bump of a transient air pocket or rough crosswind. At 600 miles per hour plus, you just hang there, suspended. And it is easy to lose all sense of time, space, and reality. The old DC-3's and 4's and even the 6's bumped and banged along, and you knew damn well that something was out there battering at that fuselage, trying to get in. I guess the place to have a fantasy, if you don't want Reality to come creeping in on gnarled vulture claws, is in a jet, just hanging there. I felt vaguely drunk. Every junky and pothead I've ever known, as well as drinkers of all variety, somehow always use the word "high." By God, we really were high! Half a snootful at 37,500 feet is high, Dad! Just look out of the misty, ovoid window and there it is, big, fat, and luscious - that fat old earth. I knew one guy who said every time he smoked a joint or two he felt as though he were slowly volplaning around, doing an easy Immelmann, looking down at everybody. He could see it all. Of course, the truth is he was five feet six and a very nervous cat. In real life he didn't look down at much, except maybe a gopher or two, and it all scared him. Maybe that's part of the key, too. I don't know. The hostess began serving brandies and liqueurs. Our little First Class section was now a tightly knit, jet-propelled hootenanny. Bagged to the gills and feeling the rich, heady hot blood of Social Protest coursing through our veins. Solidarity! Love! Ah, it was good to be alive. And not only alive, but a vibrant, sensitive, Aware person who knew where injustice and human misery were. And we knew what to do about it. Sing about it. I could no longer fight back the urge to join in with my fellow men. Yes, we had been through hell together. Together we had seen it. A thin, pale young man stood in the aisle. His crystal-clear boy soprano quivering with exultation, he led us on to further glories. True, he reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, who never was exactly my type. His little-boy bangs carelessly brushed down over his forehead, his clearly symbolic denim-blue work-shirt open, nay, ripped open, a la fist-fightin' Millhand, he was the very image of a Master Sufferer Singer of our time. In the overheated air of our First Class cabin you could almost see his head starkly outlined in a grainy black and white photograph - towering above the rubble of an American street - a perfect Album Cover head. One of the New Breed - the New Breed of fiction artists edging out the old crowd who had used writing as a medium to create fictional characters in novels and plays and short stories, characters that were clearly recognized as make-believe. The New Breed has gone one important step farther. They use their own lives as a medium for fiction and their own persons as fictional characters. The New Breed can imagine himself to be anything, and believe it - Cowhand, Lumberjack, Negro, Itinerant Fruit-Picker, Bullfighter - any romantic figure that fits his fancy. So, at 19 or 20, a man can have lived a full, rich, dangerous life and feel that he is a worn-out, misery-scarred pilgrim. And what's more, his followers believe him, because they work in the same medium. Denim Shirt's China-blue eyes burned with the feverish light of the Creative Artist, believing himself to be a rough-hewn hunk who had traveled many roads, "rode freight trains for kicks and got beat up for laughs, cut grass for quarters and sang for dimes," and now he was singing out all the pain of all those old wounds, a spent, scarred Singer for Truth who had been there and known it all. At 22. If I Had a Hammer sang the pale, wispy lad. Up near the forward bulkhead two shaggy-browed 45-year-old tractor salesmen with the obvious tribal markings of retired paratroopers raised their snouts from the champagne trough. The port-side ex-sergeant glared backward down the aisle. "For God's sake, sonny, will you keep it down?" With which the old battler went back to his jug. For a brief moment the plane became very aggressive. A classical - if you will excuse the expression - pregnant moment. And then, bravely, as he had always done, Young Audrey sang on. . . . I looked at the bulging back of Old Sarge, and I wondered how many roads that old son of a gun had walked down. From Bizerte to Remagen, up the Po Valley and back; 7,000 miles, from Kiska to Iwo. And still on the Goddamn road. Beat up for laughs! The grizzled specimen next to Old Sarge had the chewed ears of a guy who had fist-fought his way through every Off Limits bar from Camp Kilmer to the Kit Kat Klub on the Potzdamer Platz, and all for laughs. The dark chick glowered up the cabin at the back of Old Sarge's head. He and his buddy were boffing it up. She glanced meltingly, at young Denim Shirt, her blue and white "Fight for Freedom" button gleaming like an angry shield above her tiny black-T-shirted bosom. Her glance spoke volumes: "Those clods! What do they know of Suffering, of fighting for Good, for Ideals? What do they know of the hard, flinty back alleys of Life, of Injustice? Only Youth understands and knows. Do not be afraid. I, an angry Girl-Type Lonesome Traveler, will protect you." The lissome lad, taking heart, began again with renewed spirit and passion. She was right. What did Old Sarge know about true Suffering? His swarthy, grizzled neck bent defiantly forward, back to the trough, that neck which still bore a permanent mahogany stain of 10,000 suns, the Libyan Desert, Tinian, the Solomons, Burma Road, Corregidor . . . Chewed Ear glanced over his hunched shoulder for a brief instant at the button-wearer, the leer that had impaled broad-beamed, ripe-bosomed females from Dakar to Adelaide, a glance primeval and unmistakable. She flushed. She obviously was not used to heavy artillery. Blowin' in the Wind The black-T-shirted White Dove fluttered, confused, in the sand for a few wing beats and then scurried out of range. The undergrad hootenanny swung into the chorus. Someone had produced a Kentucky mandolin, jangling high above the passionate Ovaltine voices. . . . The cabin was filled with the joyous sound. Old Sarge, after the last note died echoing in the soft light-blue carpeting, turned suddenly. "Hey kid, do any of you guys know 'Dirty Gertie from Bizerte'?" He laughed obscenely, not realizing he was disrupting a Religious service. The congregation plunked, embarrassed. "How 'bout Till Marlene'?" Without any warning, Chewed Ear tuned up - a cappella. I've been workin' on the railroad, all the Goddamned day . . . He sang in the cracked voice that had sung itself out over 9,000 miles of Canadian-Pacific track, laying every spike in the frozen tundra personally. I've been workin' on the railroad, just to pass the time away . . . He bellowed. Blue Jeans in the seat behind me, in a put-down stage whisper to O.S.U. Bag: "For God sake, 'I've Been Working on the Railroad'! This old guy wouldn't know a Work Song if he heard it." The apple-cheeked youth, his fingers calloused by countless hours of guitar-pick-clutching, slumped knowingly against the cushions of his seat. Can't you hear those whistles blowin' . . . The whiskey-cracked calliope, honed and sharpened against the cold winds blowing over countless flatbed coal cars and short-coupled reefers, ground to a stop. FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS. NO SMOKING PLEASE. The soft yellow warning broke up the action. "This is the Captain speaking. We are making our final approach to O'Hare Airport. We should be on the ground in three minutes. The ground temperature in Chicago - fifty-seven degrees. There is a slight crosswind. I hope you've enjoyed your trip. We hope to see you soon. Please fasten your seat belts." Our great silver arrow knifed down through the thick under-layer of cloud and smoke. Red-roofed houses and lines of crawling blue Fords rose up toward us. The great flaps creaked and clanked into position. The bird paused for a brief instant, and we touched the runway. "This is your stewardess. It has been a pleasure to have you aboard. Please keep your seat belts fastened until we come to a full stop. We hope you have had a pleasant trip, and hope to see you again soon." The jet stopped rolling, and outside my porthole I could see the Chicago end of the Great Tube being inserted into our bird. Behind me, the angry snap of a guitar case clasp. We moved up the aisle. From somewhere ahead, a piping adolescent voice: "Hey Freddie, I'll see ya next weekend at the big hoot in Ann Arbor. Dylan's gonna make the scene. Maybe Baez!" Old Sarge, hat jammed down over his ears, made one last verbal swipe at the stewardess who stood by the exit as we filed out. She smiled blandly. "I hope you enjoyed your trip, sir." Our little band of Lonesome Travelers toiled up the chute toward the City of the Broad Shoulders, Meat Packer to the World. The
This story was reprinted in "Sense of the Sixties"
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