Black Crepe, Red Myth


Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train left Washington to take his remains home to Springfield 150 years ago today. Among the commemorative works about the Lincoln cortège is one that suits this blog perfectly: The Lonesome Train. It was a 25-minute radio opera written in 1942 by Earl Robinson, a self-described “working class Communist composer.”

Robinson and other musical radicals of that era were interested in portraying a revolution-friendly Rail Splitter. For that task he turned to Millard Lampell (of the Almanac Singers and the Weavers), who came up with a libretto based on the last chapter of Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln.

Burl Ives recorded The Lonesome Train in 1944; others who have starred in it through the years include Raymond Massey and Sam Waterston. It depicts a spectral President Lincoln, passing among humble denizens of towns and cities across the United States, and speaking to his mourners personally.

Among the things Lincoln says is:

Well I’ll tell you ma’am, it seems to me the strongest bond of human sympathy, outside your family of course, should be the one uniting all working people of all nations, tongues and kindreds.

This plug for international proletarian solidarity was fashioned from Lincoln’s own words in his 1864 “Reply to the New York Workingmen’s Democratic Republican Association.”

It’s telling to restore the words to their context.

Lincoln was talking about a tragic incident known to his correspondents: a public disturbance that saw laborers murdering other laborers. “It should never be so,” wrote Lincoln. “The strongest bond of human sympathy, outside of the family relation, should be one uniting all working people, of all nations, and tongues, and kindreds.”

What you would never suspect from The Lonesome Train is that Lincoln evoked this agreeable image of the “strongest bond” to admonish the recipients of his letter. He went on:

Nor should this lead to a war upon property, or the owners of property. Property is the fruit of labor—property is desirable—is a positive good in the world.

In other words, it’s more John Locke than Karl Marx. Lincoln held that one’s labor is itself a form of private property—that diligent labor leading to the accumulation of property is an essential of a free society. American communists celebrated Lincoln for ending slavery even as they shunned the reasoning at the heart of his anti-slavery view.

The counter-subversives went after Earl Robinson. In fact, anticommunists protested the use of a recording of The Lonesome Train in suburban New York schools.

As for Carl Sandburg, he tired of Earl Robinson’s insertion of the Communist Party line into musical pieces on which the two men collaborated. Sandburg finally groused to Robinson that the latter bore no resemblance to Eugene V. Debs, who was admirable for having refused to “take orders from the Moscow Vatican.” (Ballad of an American, 1998)

Lincoln's funeral