I’ve always wanted to write about “sam was a man” by Vincent Persichetti. I sang it in high school, then conducted it with my women’s choir when I taught high school, and then also conducted it with my community choir and the UConn Festival Chorus in 2009. (Sadly, Festival Chorus had to drop it from the final program due to weather-related rehearsal cancellations.) Every time I do it, I love it more, and I’ve got all these ideas I want to get out in the world. So this is going to be one long post.
First, some things about the poem:
It’s by e. e. cummings.
- It’s short: six four-line stanzas alternating with one-line stanzas.
- The only phrase that is repeated is “sam was a man,” which appears as the first one-line stanza and at the beginning of the last four-line stanza.
- The only individual word which is repeated is clover, of which two make up the end of the penultimate four-line stanza.
- The language and spelling are casual, speechlike, and a little stream-of-consciousness, as though a not highly educated friend of Sam’s was recounting what he remembered of Sam–an off-the-cuff eulogy.
- The poem begins not with the common expression “rain or shine,” but “rain or hail.” Limited, hard options.
- The word kin is used as an accented pronunciation of can, itself the wrong word (shoulda been could) but of course the word also carries overtones of family–old fashioned and rural.
- The first reference to Sam’s death is at the digging of his grave, not even given the dignity of the word grave, but the rough reality of the more profane and evocative word hole. It set s a tone of death as a practical matter, dirty and gritty, but also real and common. The poet never describes Sam’s body, nor how he died—his individuality was not in his death, but in his life.
- After cummings says “sam was a man,” he compares Sam to a bridge, a bear, a weasel, and kings. He says Sam has “gone into what/all them kings/you read about,” and though cummings does not specify where he thinks those kings went, he has reminded us, as he did when he told us about the hole, that whatever it is, everybody goes eventually, regardless of rank.
- We may infer that he is beloved because cummings invokes the whippoorwill as an American everyman symbol of mourning.
- Sam had a big heart, as described to us with the witty and convoluted expression “big/as the world ain’t square;” then the size of his heart is qualified with the acknowledgement that it had “room for the devil/and his angels too” though “him” is interestingly ambiguous.
- it’s used only in the one-line stanzas and the last of the four-line stanza.
- “Aint” and “slickern” should have aspostrophes but don’t.
- There’s only one period, it’s right before the end.
- Only sleep is capitalized, and there’s no punctuation after “Sleep well”:
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
:sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weazel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down.
(Copied and pasted from “100 Selected Poems,” though I’ve removed the line numbers.)
So, you get it. I love the poem. It’s perfect.
So, now, about the song:
Persichetti did not set the poem in order, as written. He begins with the last four-line stanza, of which the first line, “sam was a man,” is the only phrase which is repeated elsewhere in the poem, as the first one-line stanza. Persichetti uses it as an introduction, then does set the rest of the poem as written, which the music changing in sections which correspond to stanza groupings in the poem.
He repeats the phrase “sam done the best he kin,” setting it apart by changing meter for one measure. The only other repetition in the poem, the word clover, is repeated on the same interval, a childhood-evoking descending minor third, but with different rhythms. So, mostly, Persichetti bows to e. e. cummings. But I believe there is also a layer of his own perspective in the notation.
The song is in 2/2. A half note represents a fast-moving beat, which is not generally what we expect of a half note. Historically and theoretically, of course, this is perfectly normal. But in practice, our choirs are accustomed to seeing quarter notes representing beats. Seeing a half rest, they expect to have time to count, not just breathe and come right back in. The result of Persichetti’s choice of notation is a page that looks clean, white, and open–deceptively so, it turns out.
The poetry of the notation parallels e. e. cummings’ interest in the visual aspect of his poetry. There is more to Sam, Persichetti seems to be saying, than meets the eye. Sam and the music may look straightforward, but there is a lot going on inside at deeper levels when you look and listen carefully.
Hollow note heads and few beams mean that the page is not dense with ink.
It looks simple.
It belies the complicated rhythms that exist aurally. Look:
There’s the clean, simple-looking page with the meter change for the one line he repeats.
And now this:
The top line there sounds like this:
A few measures later, “Nobody’ll know” also sounds like a triplet, especially because “know” is accented. And this is just one page’s examples of a rhythms that sound different and much more complicated than they look. If you just listen without the score, you would probably suspect that the song is written in mixed meter with changing time signatures.
See what I’m saying about how it seems like a visual representation of Sam? Both it and he appear plain and simple, but are richly complex under the surface.
The piano part offers another dimension of commentary on the poem. Like Bach’s use of the oboe to represent the holy spirit, this third voice acts completely independent of the two other closely related lines. It is independent and far more complex. It could represent the hidden depths of Sam, his fire, the presence of his spirit.
Boy, do I love this song. When closer examination yields possibilities like this, you know you’re in the presence of a great artist. “Hello, Persichetti,” it allows me to say, “I see what you did there. And I agree with you: e. e. cummings is amazing, and he made me love Sam, too.”