James Agee is back, with a revived version of the work he did with Walker Evans in the American South during the Depression. His ear supplied the words and Evans’ eye supplied the photographs of stoic people trying to survive.
Here is another great collaboration I seek out at Father’s Day: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s adaptation of Agee, sung by Eleanor Steber at a concert in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10, 1958.
The song works for Mother’s Day but even more for Father’s Day, because the lyricism and discordance suggest what is coming soon. Agee’s father died in 1916, which was commemorated in Agee’s A Death in the Family, published in 1957, two years after Agee’s death.
The song describes Agee’s family sitting outdoors, in a time before air conditioning and television. It begins:
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy….
I heard it first on WQXR-FM years ago, and bought the CD, Eleanor Steber in Concert, 1956-58. I later read that Steber was from Wheeling, West Virginia, and wondered if she would have felt any affinity for Knoxville, further down the Appalachian range.
The song reminds me of summer evenings in the 1940’s, when my family stayed outdoors, in our own back yard in the borough of Queens, to catch some slight breeze. I remember fireflies and the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio and my brothers and sisters and my parents.
This is where I usually lose it:
All my people are larger bodies than mine...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth…
When I play this song, I think of our parents, talking about books and politics and the old days, suggesting what is possible for us in our lives.
For those of us who know that our parents were good to us, this is a memory. For others, it may be an ideal, a hope.
* * *
The concert above is from 1948, when the work made its debut. The pianist is Edwin Biltcliffe.
Jane Redmont’s web site has a wise tribute to the song, and includes the lyrics:
My childhood friend Alan Spiegel wrote a lovely biography and critique of Agee in 1998:
“They may hate the cultural context they now find themselves teaching in, but they love their work. The Achilles’ heel of schoolteachers, one all too easily exploited by politicians, is that they love their students.”
(One of the best reads in the NYT these days is Margaret Renkl, in Nashville. In her latest post, Renkl describes the dedicated core of “born teachers” – the majority, she submits.)
(From Madeleine Albright in one of her final interviews in February):
“Putin is small and pale,” I wrote, “so cold as to be almost reptilian.” He claimed to understand why the Berlin Wall had to fall but had not expected the whole Soviet Union to collapse. “Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” – Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, recalling her first meeting with the relatively unknown Vladimir Putin in 2000. – The New York Times, Feb. 23, 2022.