Ten Sentences: Gettysburg Address

On an autumn day on this date in 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered a speech that only took a few minutes and was a mere ten sentences long.  The most famous photo of the speech shows Lincoln stepping down after finishing, because the photographer had assumed the speech would last longer than it did.

The Gettysburg ceremony took place to dedicate a new national cemetery several months after the July 1-3 battle that left around 50,000 soldiers injured or dead.  Organizers invited Lincoln to deliver a few remarks after the main oration by Edward Everett, a former Secretary of State, Governor, and Senator.  Everett spoke for two hours, while Lincoln took only a few minutes to deliver his ten sentences.  Newspaper reviews for the President’s speech at the time were mixed, often along partisan lines, but soon people recognized how his ten sentences defined the war and the nation.

Gary Wills in his book Lincoln at Gettysburg, as well as others, note historical parallels between the language of the speech and Greek sources, the Bible, etc.  One of my favorite connections was noted today by James Hume, who was a speechwriter for Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.  He wrote that when Lincoln was ten, a farmer loaned Lincoln a book, Mason Weems’ Life of George Washington.  After the book was significantly ruined by rain that had leaked into the cabin, Lincoln had to work off the book by pulling tree stumps, and then the waterlogged book became one of the boy’s few possessions.  A page that was still legible showed a picture of Washington at a Valley Forge memorial with the inscription, “That these dead shall not have died in vain.”  The 54-year-old Lincoln incorporated those words into his famous speech.

It took me twelve sentences to tell the above background story.  Lincoln defined a nation in ten.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Often, Lincoln actors have deep booming voices — with one exception being Henry Fonda’s wonderful portrayal in the movie Young Mr. Lincoln.  But Lincoln actually had a high-pitched voice, so the recording below done by Jeff Daniels — where he also realistically seems to be sort of yelling as Lincoln would have had to do at the event without artificial amplification — is probably more accurate than most simulations.

For those of you who prefer your information in Powerpoint, click here.

Photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg via public domain. Update: In 2013, a second photo was found that featured Lincoln at Gettysburg. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Charley Patton: Spoonful Blues

    It’s difficult for the modern listener to fully appreciate what Charley Patton’s music must have meant to people who lived when it was made.  First is the problem of time.  Although we can connect to music before our time, there’s something different between being there in the moment and listening through the earpiece of time.  A young kid who today hears Elvis Presley for the first time might enjoy the music, but can the music really have the kind of meaning it must have had for a listener in 1954 hearing him for the first time?

    Charley Patton, whose birth date is unknown and who died on died April 28, 1934, is often called “The King of the Delta Blues.” He was a huge star in the South in the late 1920’s.  He’d pack any place he played, and audiences loved him.  By all accounts the 135-lb and 5-foot-5-inch man was a great guitar player and entertainer.  He was a big influence on younger blues men who would become legends themselves, like Robert Johnson and Son House.

    Another reason it’s hard for us to fully appreciate the value of his music is that there are a limited number of his songs preserved for us.  And those songs we can hear are poor quality copies of heavily played and scratched 78 rpm records.  Paramount, the recording company that made his records in 1929 and 1930 went out of business and sold the metal masters of the records as scrap metal.  The masters of the recordings of the popular and influential Patton ended up lining chicken coops.  Too bad he was born before the time when anyone can post anything on YouTube.

    Here’s one of his songs from one of the copies of those scratched up records.  Don’t worry if you can’t pick out the words in the rambling song about cocaine addiction.  Just feel the music.  Try your best to close your eyes, sway your body, and hear the music as it was heard for the first time . . . when the haunting music meant the world to those who heard it.

    Photo via. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Whip My Hair: Neil Young & Bruce Springsteen Cover

    In this video from last night’s show, Jimmy Fallon does his great Neil Young impression to cover the Willow Smith song, joined by a “young” Bruce Springsteen at around the 2-minute mark.  Excellent.

    Rolling Stone has the story behind the performance here.

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    Is it Safe?: Torture American-Style

    In the movie Marathon Man, there’s a famous sequence where the Nazi war criminal (played by Laurence Olivier) uses dental tools on Dustin Hoffman’s mouth to torture him into answering the code question “Is it safe?”  I remember the movie from my youth, as well as movies like The Deer Hunter, which shows America’s enemies using torture techniques on American prisoners of war — played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage.  In The Deer Hunter, the captors force the three Americans to play Russian Roulette and punish the soldiers by putting them in an underwater cage full of live rats and dead bodies.

    Watching these movies as a kid, these torture techniques were things that our enemies did.  Americans do not torture.  If we adopt the techniques of the bad guys, then there is no longer a difference between us and them.

    Torture has been in the news lately because of the release of former Pres. George W. Bush’s book, Decision Points.  In it, he describes how when the CIA asked him whether he would support waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammad, he responded, “Damn right!”  Former Vice-President Cheney has stated he is a “big supporter” of waterboarding.

    Waterboarding is torture in violation of international law.  But what about when government officials feel the country is in danger and it is necessary?

    Pres. Obama has been criticized for his failure to investigate and prosecute the Americans who used torture techniques.  I understand his aversion to opening up a partisan fight.  Some claim, though, that the failure to pursue the perpetrators leaves a precedent for future presidents that torture techniques will be tolerated.

    There’s an old joke about a man who goes to a woman and asks, “Will you sleep with me for a million dollars?”

    The woman thinks for a few minutes, and responds, “Sure.”

    Then the man asks, “Will you sleep with me for ten dollars?”

    The woman says, “Certainly not!  What kind of woman do you think I am?”

    The man responds, “We’ve already established that.  Now we’re just negotiating on a price.”

    The joke reminds me of our attitudes about torture.  You’re either for it or against it, and then it’s just negotiating when to use it.  Nobody advocates torture for jaywalking.  If you’re for it, it’s for the extreme situations.  So you can’t rid yourself of the responsibility by saying “I only advocate it for certain situations.”  You’re pro-torture or anti-torture.  That part is simple.

    Unfortunately, the line about what my country does and tolerates is not as simple as I believed when I was a kid watching movies.

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    The Promise

    Today is the release date for Bruce Springsteen’s “new” CD/DVD set, The Promise.  The songs on the two-CD set mostly were recorded during sessions after 1975’s Born to Run and before 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, but ultimately they were left off the latter album.  It’s interesting that the DVD documentary and the album are named after the song “The Promise,” a song never given a proper release and long one of my favorite songs.

    There are many songs about broken hearts, but there are not many great songs that are about broken dreams like “The Promise.”  A testament to the power of this song is the fact that in the new documentary, Springsteen said that he did not release the song in 1978 because he was “too close” to it.  There has been speculation about what it specifically means to him, tying it to his situation of being embroiled in a lawsuit at the time with his former manager Mike Appel over control and ownership of his songs.    But like most songs that come out of a strong personal meaning for the songwriter, this one has universal themes that touches people unconnected to its origins.

    In 1998, Springsteen released Tracks, a 4-CD set of unreleased songs from throughout his career.  He miscalculated how much his fans had grown to love “The Promise” through years of bootlegging, and fans complained that the song was left off the set.  He remedied the situation by adding the song to a single CD Best of Tracks collection, making fans happy for the song but not happy to have to buy the Best of CD for a couple of bonus songs when they had already purchased the 4-CD set.  At the time, he said he did not release “The Promise” on Tracks because he was not satisfied with the versions in the vaults, so recorded a new version with him alone at a piano for the Best of CD.

    I loved the piano version of “The Promise” that he released on Tracks, and with the Internet now I’ve heard several versions of the song.  I first heard the song as a bootleg on a record album in the early 1980’s and it immediately became one of my favorite songs.  In that version, it featured the full band, so I have a fondness for the full band versions of the song, like the version I’m posting below.

    The song is about people with dreams — and in particular a person who travels to participate in car races in his car, “Challenger” — and what happens after the dreams are broken.  I like the line about how even when you win, you still feel like you carry something from those you defeated.

    I won big once and I hit the coast
    But somehow I paid the big cost
    Inside I felt like I was carryin’ the broken spirits
    Of all the other ones who lost
    When the promise is broken you go on living
    But it steals something from down in your soul
    Like when the truth is spoken and it don’t make no difference
    Something in your heart goes cold

    The song has several references to “Thunder Road,” which certainly had various meanings for Springsteen after a song by that name appeared on his previous album and had created such high expectations and pressure for the upcoming album.  In the different versions of “The Promise” I’ve heard, Springsteen sometimes places different emphasis on the final lines about the narrator and Billy saying they were going to “take it all and throw it all away.”  Sometimes he sings with resignation and despair, sometimes he sings with hopeless defiance.  But that’s one of the signs of a great song and a great singer, that they can convey different meanings and emotions with the same material.  I’m glad that this song never got thrown away.

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