This feature appears in the Online Bonus for Issue 22 of RELEVANT magazine which hits stores this week. You can click here to see the full line-up for the issue and read more online-exclusive material.
You’ve heard his weird naratives and obscure epics on tracks that make up his audio interpretations of historic events in eclectic locales. Here’s some background and historical perspective on some of the strangest songs by Sufjan Stevens.
“Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois”
The first track on Illinois is about the supposed UFO sighted by Melvern Noll, the owner of a miniature golf course in Highland, Ill., in January 2000. Rumor has it that while Noll was manicuring the fine fairways of his course at 4 in the morning, he saw what appeared to be a two-story house hovering silently about 1,000 feet above the ground. “I kept my eyeballs on it; it was all lighted up and so low that someone could have waved at me out the window.”
Noll alerted the authorities not only in Highland but also the neighboring town of Lebanon, because it was headed their way. The unidentified flying object did take its show on the road through Lebanon, and eventually it passed over Shiloh, Dupo and Millstadt and was seen by at least four local policemen. Although Sufjan Stevens does not claim to have seen the UFO himself, it was reported in the days following the first sighting by more than 20 other people.
"The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Gonna Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!’"
This song, the first instrumental on Illinois and the winner for longest song title on the record, is named for the Black Hawk War fought in 1832 between the Fox and Sauk Indians and the United States Army in Illinois and the Michigan Territory. The war gets its name from the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk, who led the Native American band of rebels against the United States Army and local militias. He is also responsible for the last line of the song title, a direct quote.
The war was short-lived. The Army killed most of Black Hawk’s warriors and had captured Black Hawk within the month. Eventually, while imprisoned, Black Hawk was carted around the United States, ostensibly to show him the might of the empire and for him pass on that information to his Indian buddies. This scheme didn’t work; Black Hawk became an instant celebrity and continued to support the Native American fight for their lands and freedom until he died in 1838.
“Casimir Pulaski Day”
Casimir Pulaski Day is a regional holiday honoring Casimir Pulaski, a Polish-born American Revolutionary War cavalry officer. Pulaski Day is celebrated the first Monday of March all over Illinois and Wisconsin. The holiday is celebrated most vigorously in areas with high Polish-American populations, but Casimir Pulaski is honored at different times throughout the year across America—mostly in very small celebrations that no one really goes to. But not in Illinois.
The kids get the day off school, and there are festivals, parades and much merriment to honor the fallen Polish-American hero. In recent years the holiday has become somewhat of a joke among many Illinoisans because of the relative anonymity of Pulaski. Many schools in Illinois have stopped observing the holiday. Some holiday experts even predict that this day may be heading toward the holiday graveyard. In other Casimir Pulaski-based music news, the Chicago-based 1980s noise rock band Big Black recorded a song titled “Kasimir J. Pulaski Day.”
“Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!”
This song, off Illinois, ranks among the greatest executions of the slant rhyme ever seen in modern lyricism. About the city of Decatur, Ill., the song, although ridiculous, is all based on fact.
“It’s really an exercise in rhyme schemes. It’s just fun and games. But I think a person from Decatur will acknowledge that all of these references are based on real events and circumstances that have happened in and around Decatur, throughout history. So ‘alligator’ rhymes with ‘Decatur,’ but there also was an alligator sighting in one of the rivers in Decatur. And ‘caterpillar’ refers to the manufacturers of Caterpillar construction equipment. And, you know, they’ve had sightings of kangaroos there. There was a flood, and it did exhume a graveyard where Confederate and Union soldiers were intermixed. So a lot of the rhymes sound silly, but they’re actually based on fact,” said Sufjan Stevens, proficient rhymer and proficient small-town historian.
“The Undivided Self (For Eppie and Popo)”
This song, which didn’t make the cut onto Illinois but can be found on The Avalanche, refers to Esther Pauline Friedman Laderer and Pauline Esther Friedman Phillips. They are more commonly known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby, the competing syndicated advice columnist/sister duo. They were at times rivals, best friends, writers, bitter enemies and identical twin sisters. As children they were given the nicknames Eppie (Esther aka Ann Landers) and Popo (Pauline aka Abigail Van Buren aka Dear Abby) presumably so their parents (who named them the same thing) could remember who was who.
Early in their lives they were very close and even went so far as to have a joint wedding ceremony. But later on, competing for syndication and the hearts, minds and trust of Americans yearning for advice, the relationship grew cold. However, they made it past their disagreement to unite to raise awareness about razor blades hidden in candied apples on Halloween, joining forces to terrify children and parents for decades to come. In more positive news, they reconciled before Eppie’s death in 2002.
“The Vivian Girls Are Visited in the Night by Saint Dararius and His Squadron of Benevolent Butterflies”
This track, also off the Avalanche album is a reference to a 15,143-page story written by Henry Darger, a janitor from Chicago. Darger, prone to the same style of lengthy naming as Sufjan Stevens, called his book The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
The story was illustrated by Darger, who traced most of his human figures from magazine scraps that he collected during his time as a janitor. Right before Henry Darger died, this book, as well as two other manuscripts, were found in his room by his landlord.
The story centers around the Vivian Girls, the Princesses of the Christian Kingdom Abbiennia on a large planet around which the earth orbits as a moon. They are fighting the Glandelinians, an evil people that torture and kill children. If you are still following this, then you should look into Darger’s book and art, which posthumously have become a big part of the Outsider Art Movement.
This track was cut from Illinois but eventually found its way on The Avalanche. It’s about, you guessed it, Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize-winning novelist and prominent Illinoisan. Bellow grew up in the ghetto of Chicago and used the city as a backdrop for many of his 18 novels.The Adventures of Augie March and Seize the Day are two of his most significant.
On his reasons for leaving him off the first album, Stevens said, “I read The Adventures of Augie March, and I was planning to use him as a muse, but I felt like his artistry and vision were so complete and so profound, and his style so kind of cumbersome and glib and very self-conscious—far more sophisticated than Carl Sandburg. I felt like I couldn’t really use Bellow as a resource for a song …”