Sunday, July 23, 2017

An Examination of Sufjan Stevens' Song "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!"

Back in 2005, indie rock all-star Sufjan Stevens released an entire album of songs about the great state of Illinois. This was preceded by an album about Michigan and at one time there was talk of a larger multi-album project that would cover all 50 states (can you imagine!). The album, entitled Come on Feel the Illinoise, features a song centered around Decatur with many subtle references for Decaturites to enjoy.

The title of the song is "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!" and I love the double title which are commonplace in Stevens' other work. As we take a look at the song, the lyrics will be in italics below

The song is great in that the Decatur references are wound into the song in a way that they can float right by you naturally and I'm sure there are meanings here that I'm still missing even after closely examining them.

We begin with banjo and accordion talking with each other and Sufjan softly sings about  taking a trip, presumably with other siblings, to Decatur with their step-mom who they dislike greatly.

One, two, three, four
Our step mom we did everything to hate her
She took us down to the edge of Decatur
We saw the lion and the kangaroo take her
Down to the river where they caught a wild alligator

Here's the first reference to Decatur mythology with the mention of a lion, kangaroo, and alligator as each has a story in the cities past. Nellie the Lion was a lion that was shipped to a mansion (as one does) in Monticello, IL and then promptly escaped the grounds. The lioness wondered around central Illinois and made its way to Decatur and was actively hunted by armed citizens in 1917 before vanishing for good somewhere into the cornfields.

Decatur had a summer of the kangaroo in 1975 as one was spotted around town by many Decaturites. Lastly, alligators have been seen (and caught) around Lake Decatur, which sits to the south of the city, many times in the last century including recorded sightings in 1892, 1937, and 1966.

Sangamon River it overflowed
It caused a mudslide on the banks of the operator

The Sangamon River is a major river in Central Illinois but not near Decatur. It runs between Peoria and Springfield which are far to the west of Decatur.

Civil war skeletons in their graves
They came up clapping in the spirit of the aviator

Decatur's Greenwood Cemetery has a large section devoted to Civil War veterans and is one of the the famous "haunted" places in town.

The sound of the engines and the smell of the grain
We go riding on the abolition grain train

Anyone who has visited Decatur for more than a few days will likely come into contact with Decatur's "smell" which comes from the Tate and Lyle grain factory that sits to the east of downtown. You will also probably have to sit in traffic and watch as a train passes through the middle of town on its way to the factory.  The factory smell is not a constant annoyance and when we lived in the north part of town it was mainly a late night experience. After moving downtown near Millikin University, I now rarely smell it at all and it is a surprise when what I describe as "hot dog food" hits my nose.

Steven A. Douglas was a great debater
But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator

Two legends of Illinois politics, Decatur was the location of Lincoln's first home in Illinois. I wrote about the Lincoln statue at Millikin University back in November.

Chicken mobile with your rooster tail
I had my fill and I know how bad it feels

I believe the most hidden reference to Decatur is in the couplet about the chicken mobile. A "chicken car" is the visual calling card of the famous Krekel's Custard shop on the east side of town and the restaurant was recently in the news as it had a fire in June which temporarily closed the eatery.

Stay awake and watch for the data
No small caterpillar, go congratulate her

I'm still looking for a meaning in the "data" line but the Caterpillar company (based out of Peoria, IL) as a long standing factory in Decatur where they make large wheel loaders and compactors.

Denominator, go Decatur, go Decatur
It's the great I am
Abominate her, go Decatur, why did we hate her?
It's the great I am
Denominator, go Decatur, anticipate her
It's the great I am
Appreciates her, appreciate her
Stand up and thank her
Stand up and thank her
It's the great I am
Stand up and thank her
It's the great I am
Stand up and thank her
It's the great I am
Stand up and thank her

And so because the trip to Decatur wasn't so bad after all, Stevens and family appreciate their step-mother a little more. How nice! The phrase "It's the great I am" is a slight modification of  the English language answer God gave to Moses when he asked what God's name was. It's still a mystery to me its meaning here.

I've always enjoyed the Illinoise album but since moving here I've come to love it even more. I mean, Stevens even wrote a lovely song about one of the state's favorite sons, Adlai Stevenson on a bonus of outtakes album call The Avalanche. I visited Stevenson's grave in Bloomington, IL back in April.

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