I hear America singing

Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy
Community Editor
Neosho Daily News

In eleven short lines, poet Walt Whitman captured the spirit of a nation. His poem "I Hear America Singing" is part of his poetry volume, Leaves of Grass. The poem was first written before the Civil War and updated afterward with only minor changes. Although written more than a hundred and fifty years ago, the poem describes a nation of workers, each marching (or in this case singing) to their own beat.

Whitman describes a nation made up of varied people, each with their own song, as he writes "each singing what belongs to him or her and no one else".

In reading over the poem again, I was struck by the contrasts between our time and Whitman's.

I wondered whether or not America is singing. This year is a troubled time in our nation. Racial tensions, a Coronavirus pandemic, economy worries, destruction of statues and monuments, and a presidential election have the United States on edge. Are Americans singing? Right now it doesn't seem like they are. I hear a lot of voices but if most are singing, it's discordant. Too many songs have harsh notes. And many more aren't singing at all.

As a society, we probably don't sing as much as Americans did in the 19th century. We still have music, however, and maybe if we carried the ideas of this poem forward into the 21st century, it would be safe to say we hear America's music. We're singing along to the tunes.

Some of the occupations may sound a little outdated today. I don't know too many who call themselves a boatman or a woodcutter or a ploughboy. But still in the evenings, the young gather to sing - or hear - their songs.

As the nation celebrates July 4 this week, maybe it's time to start singing a new song - one of unity, not division, one of heritage and history, one of the nation we call home.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

-Walt Whitman, "I Hear America Singing".

-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is the community editor for The Neosho Daily News and The Aurora Advertiser. She writes a weekly column, A Writer's View, and is also an author.