Song Beneath the Song: “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens (2022)

I WAS WATCHING an episode of Weeds a few years back—it was the one where Nancy Botwin makes out with the DEA agent—and just as they are about to get it on, a song came on in the background, a quiet song, a man singing softly over an acoustic guitar and a piano, a song of such power, such emotional depth, that it completely pulled me out of the scene. Mary-Louise Parker receded into the background, where the audio was supposed to be (there is such a thing as a tune being too good for a TV soundtrack). All I wanted was to hear that song from beginning to end, without the distraction of a pot plot.

The song was called “Holland,” and I’d never heard it before. But I immediately knew the artist—because his voice is so distinctive, but also because so few musicians are capable of this Pied Piper-like magic. It had to be, could only be, Sufjan Stevens.

Whenever I hear some music snob lament that music today sucks—a preposterous claim that bespeaks of tin ears, poor taste, or complete ignorance of what’s available; the rock star may be dead, but pop music is alive and well, and anyone who believes otherwise is just not paying attention—my first counter is always, “What about Sufjan?”

Even in the wackadoodle world of popular music, this guy is an enigma. His name was suggested to his parents by the founder of Subud, and is Islamic in origin, although he is a devout Christian. His brother is a successful marathon runner. His songs have long titles like “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons” and “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze” and “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'” He wrote a multi-media symphony about the BQE. He records albums of Christmas music, without irony. His music runs the gamut, from folk to disco; he’s never content to rest on his artistic laurels, always seeking out new directions. And I defy you to name another musician of his stature who has an MFA—and from the New School, no less.

(Come on Feel the) Illinoise, the second installment in his proposed-but-as-yet-unfinished Fifty States Project, is, for my money, the best album made in the oughts. At turns lush and spare, it features the soaring“Chicago” (the best song of the decade, it says here), the frantic “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” the 5/4-time title track, and the devastatingly beautiful “Casimir Pulaski Day,” known in our house as, simply, “Sad Song.”

The Weeds incident was not the first example of Stevens’ power. When my son was two, he was having a tantrum, as two-year-olds will. As he screamed and complained, “Casimir Pulaski Day” came on the iPod. He immediately stopped crying, as if a button had been switched off on his back, and walked to the speakers, listening intently, spellbound by the music. “This is a sad song,” I told him. “Sad Song,” he repeated. And so it has remained.

I’ve listened to “Sad Song” hundreds if not thousands of times. I don’t mean I had it on while I was driving, or in the background with friends over; I’ve listened to it. I hummed the trumpet part to my daughter the night she was born. I’ve sung it to her and my son as a lullaby countless times, and each time, as I sing lyrics I know by heart, some new flash of insight hits me. It’s a song that never fails to move me.

~

“Casimir Pulaski Day,” the seventh track on the Illinoise, concerns a young man’s memory of the week leading up to the death of his dearest friend. It is unquestionably the best song ever written about a 12-year-old girl dying of bone cancer.

(Video) Sufjan Stevens - Casimir Pulaski Day

There is an adolescent and artless quality to the lyrics. There is no metaphor, no fancy fifty-cent words, no coherent structure. The story itself is poorly told; we must assemble and organize the traces of the narrator’s memory to deduce what happened. The music underscores this simplicity: the same four chords repeated over and over, uncluttered arrangement, none of the swirling synthesizers and female chorales and abrupt shifts in dynamics that characterize “Chicago” and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.”

But it is this very artlessness that makes the song so moving. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is artless in the way that The Catcher in the Rye is artless, its simplicity belying the thematic complexity lurking beneath the juvenile surface. This is a song about grief, about coping with the loss of a loved one, and, deeper still, about reconciling that death with the existence of a just and benevolent God, in Whom the narrator has grown up believing.

On closer inspection, there is a distinct design to the lyrics. The repetition of key words—night, face, morning, glory, window, shoulder—suggests a sestina and hints at the larger story. The vignettes remembered by the narrator—the futile night at the Bible study, the kiss at Michael’s house, meeting her father at the top of the stairs, and so forth—are not chronological, but seem to come to the narrator as he speaks.

Following is my analysis of the lyrics. SPOILER ALERT! Because I don’t want to ruin the experience for you, if you’re unfamiliar with the song, I urge you to listen to it now. You can do so on YouTube and Spotify, but you should really just download the track. It’s worth the 99 cents, I promise.

The I stands for Illinois.

~

First verse:

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you when I found out
You had cancer of the bone

The unusual and useless items hint at the narrator’s age—probably 12 or 13, on the cusp of puberty—when he finds out she has bone cancer.

(Video) How Sufjan Stevens Writes a Song

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

The most cryptic passage in the song; chronologically, the last event that happens (see below).

In the morning, through the window shade
With the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading

He’s walking by her house. This tells us that they’re neighbors. The exact nature of her reading material is never revealed; it could be the Bible, or perhaps a love letter—something that was special to the two of them.

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

The first line will be repeated several times throughout the song; this is its first appearance. There is the whiff of irony about its use, but its meaning is still unclear now. What is not unclear is how he feels about her: not just love, but romantic love, probably the first time he’s felt it.

Second verse:
Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

We know she died on a Monday, because Casimir Pulaski Day is observed as a holiday in Illinois on the first Monday in March (see below). “Tuesday,” then, is a week before she died.

“Bible study” tells us that they are both religious Christians, and go to the same church. This and the proximity of their houses suggests that they’ve known each other for some time.

The line “nothing ever happens” not only tells us that the Bible study group has prayed for her on many occasions, but hints at the agnostic doubts that have begun to creep into the narrator’s mind.

I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

(Video) Sufjan Stevens - Casimir Pulaski Day Guitar Arrangement + Tutorial

Michael is probably a friend, or perhaps the adult who leads the Bible study group. “You kissed my neck” reveals her feelings about the narrator—she loves him, too. “I almost touched your blouse” reinforces the suggestion in the first verse that the narrator is 12 or 13; any younger and he wouldn’t be trying for second base; any older and he wouldn’t mention it.

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

My guess is that “what we did that night” was spend the night together in her bed. Not in a sexual way; in a tender, supportive, hold-me-don’t-leave-me-alone way.

All the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Again, not so glorious. He screwed up. He tried to get a little further—he touched her blouse this time—and she didn’t like it. She tucked in her shirt for emphasis, but she didn’t bother with the shoes.

Then we have a break in the song, and a hauntingly simple, achingly beautiful trumpet takes the melody. This represents a change in her physical condition, and his emotional one.

Third verse:
Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I found the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

He’s in her house, not his. The hospice nurse is there (see below). Her father is with her. He’s making himself useful, tidying up, and comes across this special artifact. Her mother is not there, and the only way she wouldn’t be sitting with her dying daughter is if she were already dead. Death is no stranger to this house.

On the floor at the Great Divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

It’s the moment of truth. They know it’s almost over. The “Great Divide” is what separates the living from the dead. He notices that his shirt is tucked in and his shoes are untied, as hers were when he took it too far, and that sets him off. He finally breaks down, in the bathroom, away from the bed.

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head held low
And the cardinal hits the window

(Video) Casimir Pulaski Day (Sufjan Stevens Cover)

It’s the next day, Monday. She held on longer than expected. The presence of the nurse indicates a hospice situation. And no sooner does the girl die than a bird crashes into the window. Her window. The same one he used to look into.

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I heard you breathing

He came into the room and saw her body. He thought she was still alive, but she wasn’t. She was gone.

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the evening in the window

Chronologically, this is a bit later, after the funeral probably. He’s reflecting on what has happened. The “complications” are his own feelings about God and religion. All that belief, all that prayer, and for what? God took her anyway. It’s not God’s face but his own that he sees in the mirror of the evening window. Message: he is alone in the world.

All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

The first line—“when He took our place”—is shorthand for Jesus dying on the cross, sacrificing Himself so that we can all be saved. But the narrator is angry at Jesus, angry at God, for taking not only the love of his life, not only her mother, but also her father (“He takes” is repeated, crucially, three times). Now the cryptic passage from the first verse makes more sense:

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

Her father spoke to the narrator, tried to explain himself (Had he denied her medical assistance for religious reasons? Was there some way that he felt responsible for what happened?), and then, tragically, “drove his car into the Navy Yard,” that is, off a bridge. He committed suicide. And the narrator has lost the entire beloved family.

As long as he lives in Illinois, the narrator will have no school or work on the day she died. The rest of the state will unknowingly observe her death. But the cruel irony is that she died on a day already reserved for a long-dead military man with an egergiously masculine name. This poor little girl, recipient of goldenrod and the 4H stone, the love of the narrator’s life, will forever be associated with, and overshadowed by, the cold and manly Casimir Pulaski.


SONG BENEATH THE SONG, which title we’ve purloined from the (fine) Maria Taylor tune of the same name, is an occasional feature in which we attempt to decode the meaning of popular song lyrics.

(Video) Sufjan Stevens Live @ Red Rocks COMPILATION

Videos

1. John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
(Sufjan Stevens)
2. Sufjan Stevens - John Wayne Gacy, Jr.
(danielfoxes)
3. Top 10 Sufjan Stevens Songs That Will Give You Chills
(WatchMojo.com)
4. How Sufjan Stevens Tells Stories
(Polyphonic)
5. The Transfiguration
(Sufjan Stevens)
6. 'Pulaski at Night' - Andrew Bird
(andrewbirdmusic)

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