Here’s a clip of twee-indie poster boy Sufjan Stevens with his song from 2005’s Illinoise, “Casimir Pulaski Day”. This track is a highlight from his loosely formatted concept album about the State of Illinois in a similar vein to its predecessor, Greetings From Michigan: the Great Lake State.
Casimir Pulaski Day is a holiday in the State of Illinois, celebrating a historical military figure, Kazimierz Pułaski. This song is not specifically referencing the man or the circumstances surrounding his importance, but is rather a reflection on a series of events that unfolded on the holiday named after him. This is an example of Stevens’ approach to the business of shared cultural history.
In this song, and over the whole album, the larger context of the state’s history is shown to contain a number of more granular histories which in the end become more important. Personal history takes precedence in this song. And this is where its strength lies, well beyond a bunch of songs about a certain region. In the lyrics to “Casimir Pulaski Day”, you get a real sense of the characters in the song, the tensions they feel, the sadness they experience, and the love they share. In this song, this is the history that really matters. The holiday, with a history of its own, is just the stage on which the drama unfolds.
The song itself is a series of snapshots of mid-western life; 4H clubs, Bible-studies, and young love. But threaded through these snapshots is a story about the reality of loss. In this song, the spectre of tragedy looms and the faith the characters place in God as a response to that reality seems to return nothing but doubt. The emotional forces present here are potent, yet the presentation of them is understated and without fanfare. For the listener, it’s kind of like looking into a shoebox full of faded photos and handwritten letters smelling of time, and activating powerful memories which are ultimately too far away to bring into focus. Yet the feelings it evokes are as clear as anything. This is a story of doubt, tragedy, a young life cut short, and the spiritual mess left to clean-up afterwards. This is a song for anyone who has ever wondered, if there is such a thing as a loving God, why do bad things happen to good people?
And of course, there’s the sound of the song – the gentleness of Stevens’ voice and delicately plucked banjo contrasted with the tempestuous emotions which the lyrics evoke. I love the loping guitar lines, the mournful trumpet (has a trumpet ever sounded so mournful?), and the chorus of backing voices like those of a tragedy play. This is one of my favourite songs off of one of my favourite albums which came out that year.
To hear more from Sufjan Stevens, check out the Sufjan Stevens MySpace Page.
And don’t forget to visit Asmatic Kitty Records, Stevens’ label, to find out more about releases and tour dates.