The Jazz Age
The 1920s were the beginning of the Jazz Age, when musicians were experimenting with the earliest forms of jazz music. The sound came with the blacks migrating from New Orleans and mixed with the already established ragtime style. In ‘‘Jazz Fantasia,’’ Sandburg praises musicians of 1920, who had just begun to play what was recognized as jazz. His recognition of the genius of the movement and the obstacles it had to overcome compels him to press for more, to congratulate the artists, and to exhort them to play on. Of course, Sandburg can take no credit for the jazz movement, but it is notable that a Swedish American poet would grasp the brilliance of the music that would affect nearly every aspect of modern American music from 1920 to present day. As a poet, he loved the way the music could summon images, evoke strong moods, and soothe the soul.
In his poem ‘‘Prairie,’’ Sandburg prophesies the coming of bigger cities with skyscrapers and a change from a rural to an urban society. In his Chicago Poems and Smoke and Steel, in which ‘‘Jazz Fantasia’’ was included, there are volumes of poems such as ‘‘The Harbor,’’ ‘‘The Halstead Street Car,’’ ‘‘Subway,’’ ‘‘Skyscraper,’’ ‘‘Work Gangs,’’ and ‘‘Broken Face Gargoyles,’’ which depict the sights and sounds of the city life of the new industrial America. His poem ‘‘The Windy City’’ portrays the growing pains of Chicago in 1920.
In ‘‘Jazz Fantasia,’’ the sounds are those of the back streets of Chicago. The reader imagines a fight breaking out in a honky-tonk, while all the percussion instruments bang and clamor in a frenzy.
In Sixteen Authors to One, David Kasner writes that ‘‘Sandburg recognizes political material in . . . shovel stiffs, . . . politicians, diplomats, and the honky tonk.’’ Sandburg began his identification with the black man during his years as a hobo, working alongside them as bootblacks (shoe shiners), porters, icehouse workers, and water boys. Harry Hansen, in Midwest Portraits, explains that they ‘‘seemed most addicted to balladry. Any outstanding catastrophe would lead some improviser to throw together a dozen or more clumsy quatrains telling the story of the event.’’ Sandburg saw the genius in this and adapted it to his folk song telling of stories that he later performed with his banjo. He is faithful to making a social statement with his poetry, and he firmly protests injustice, as he did when he covered the Chicago race riots. He also does this in ‘‘Jazz Fantasia.’’ Sandburg tells the jazzmen that because of their music, social equality is waiting for them.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Carl Sandburg, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010