15 March 2024

Carl Sandburg playing the guitar and singing with his grandchildren, Paula & John


Sandburg singing with his grandchildren in the

living room of his farm in North Carolina.
Photo by June Glenn, Jr.

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site, CARL 9579


The Old Troubadour


By John W. Quinley

Dear Readers,


Now the boll weevil am a little black bug
Come from Mexico, they say.
Come all the way to Texas,
Just a-looking for a place to stay,
Looking for a home,
Just a-looking for a home.


Released in 1926, “The Boll Weevil” was Sandburg’s first recording of a folk song. In the notes to this song, he muses “perhaps, that in our mortal life neither the individual human creature, nor the big human family shall ever find a lasting home on the earth.”


When Sandburg added folk songs to his public lectures, he drew larger and larger audiences, saying, “If you don’t care for them and want to leave the hall it will be all right with me. I’ll only be doing what I’d be doing if I were at home, anyway.” They stayed, and for the rest of his long and prolific life, Sandburg sang on stages across the country. The moniker “the old troubadour” given to Sandburg by his friend, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, stuck.


There was a haunting quality to his voice, which he delivered with impeccable timing. Sandburg biographer Harry Golden shared that “I’ve heard him sing in a huge auditorium in a whisper, and yet the entire audience sat silent, spellbound.” Chicago Daily News colleague Lloyd Lewis remarked that “Sandburg may not be a great singer, but his singing is great. He is the last of the troubadours; the last of the nomad artists who hunted out the songs people made up, and then sang them back to the people like a revelation.” Lewis continued:

For every song that he sings there comes a mood, a character, an emotion... you see farmhands wailing their lonely ballads, hill-billies lamenting over drowned girls, levee hands in the throes of the blues, cowboys singing down their herds, barroom loafers howling for sweeter women, Irish section hands wanting to go home, hoboes making fun of Jay Gould’s daughter. The characters are real as life, only more lyric than life ever quite gets to be.


Sandburg accompanied himself on a guitar with no additional musicians singing or playing instruments. Even after classical guitar icon Andrés Segovia gave him a few lessons and composed a little practice piece, writing “for my dear Sandburg to teach his fingers as if they were little children,” he strummed with two fingers and stayed within two keys, A and C. He sarcastically said of his playing, “If I’d gotten a prison sentence, I’d probably have become pretty good on the guitar.”


Sandburg became increasingly in demand on stages and in halls across America, often performing for three or more months at a time. By the late 1920s, he estimated that he had performed at about two-thirds of the colleges and universities in the country. In 1936, he gave thirty platform performances in seventy days, traveling through a dozen states and Canada. During the 1950s when he was in his seventies, Sandburg continued to perform extensively. He gave concerts to an audience of 9,000 at the University of California and performed in front of 3,000 admirers at the Genial Federation of Women’s Club in Asheville, North Carolina. He was so much in demand that he turned down hundreds of invitations each year, ensuring there was ample time for his poetry, biography, journalism, and other pursuits, regardless of monetary considerations. His reach was extended further by the release of twelve records folk songs. Though he may not have looked the part, he was a rock star.



Thanks for reading,


John Quinley is the author of Discovering Carl Sandburg: The Eclectic Life of an American Icon and is a former docent at the Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site in Flat Rock, North Carolina. You may contact John at jwquinley@gmail.com.

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 No.  Date Title
1 8 Jan 2024 Poet of the People
2 22 Jan 2024 Before the Chicago Daily News
3 12 Feb 2024 Why Did Sandburg study Lincoln?
4 22 Feb 2024 Remembering Karlen Paula
5 15 Mar 2024 The Old Troubadour
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