. . .
On the short list of Prettiest Songs Ever Recorded, Christian Indie Folk Division, “Casimir Pulaski Day” is also one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written, and Sufjan Stevens gets right into it over a lonely acoustic guitar.
Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you when I found out
You had cancer of the bone
Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry
Yup. Unlike the friend Sufjan road-tripped with to Chicago and New York, this one will never get to experience that kind of post-adolescent freedom, because they’re not going to make it that long. And the rest of the song alternates details of his relationship with his friend and his trying to come to terms with their death.
In the morning, through the window shade
When the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth
And with Shara Worden sharing at least the vocal burden on that first chorus, it’s already ridiculously sad, and the powerlessness Sufjan feels about the whole situation is palpable, as a banjo comes in to counterpoint the acoustic guitar.
Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens
I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse
I’ve spent my whole life in California, so I had no idea what Casimir Pulaski Day was.
So, based upon my half-assed research — I googled “Casimir Pulaski Day” and read the Wikipedia article on it — Casimir Pulaski was a Polish-born Revolutionary War officer who was known as the “father of the American cavalry” and died in Savannah, Georgia in 1779.
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
All the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you
Sufjan is now so caught up in telling the story, he almost swallows the last line in a hush, which sets up a lovely trumpet solo from Craig Montoro, which provides everybody a chance to get their composure back, before plunging us back into the story.
Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I find the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother
On the floor at the great divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom
The holiday itself is celebrated in places where there are large Polish population, places like Illinois, Wisconsin and even Buffalo. But, of course, it’s Illinois where all of this goes down, so it’s germane to the song that the holiday is always observed on the first Monday in March. And so:
In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head hung low
And the cardinal hits the window
In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I saw you breathing
All of this naturally precipitates a crisis of faith in young Sufjan: why did his friend have to die so young? What would their future have been? What kind of God allows this to happen to people of faith?
All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the morning in the window
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
All of which are unanswerable questions, of course. But the anger and resigned bitterness of “And He takes and He takes and He takes” resonates even with a heathen like me.
After that, there’s a wordless duet between Sujfan and Shara Worden — who’s been right there with him the whole time — leading “Casimir Pulaski Day” to its end.
It’s a tough, gorgeous song, and even though I’ve been listening to it since 2005, I had no idea that it was nearly six minutes long. I honestly thought it was half that length. But it was one of the songs that made Illinois such a sensation in the critical and indie world. Back when those two things still coincided. Not only did it top several year-end best-of lists, it ended up at #3 on the Village Voice’s Pazz & Jop critics poll. And while it only made #121 on the Billboard Albums chart in 2005, it’s had staying power: in 2017, Illinois was certified a Gold record for selling over 500,000 copies.
“Casimir Pulaski Day”
“Casimir Pulaski Day” live on Austin City Limits, 2006
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