Reading the portion of Crane’s “The Bridge” entitled “IV. Cape Hatteras” strangely reminded me of a song I heard again recently. This soulful jam is the late, great Odetta’s cover of one of Bob Dylan’s early folk classics. To me, it exemplifies the tenacity with which so many young African-American women (Odetta, Aretha, Nina, Etta) sought to emulate their white male counterparts (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie) in the tradition of totally wailing on the acoustic folk ballad. This practice of borrowing certainly extends in the reverse, future and past. Odetta sings Dylan, so the album is called. But Dylan was singing Woody Guthrie, and Woody Guthrie was singing the ballad of the boundless American spirit, and Walt Whitman was singing the body electric!
In this sense, Crane and Eliot were singing Whitman, and in some cases to him specifically: “Walt, tell me, Walt Whitman, if infinity / Be still the same as when you walked the beach / Near Paumanok[…]” (lines 48-50). “Cape Hatteras” responds to Whitman’s own experience at Paumanok. “The Bridge” and “The Waste Land” respond to Whitman’s idealistic, idyllic themes, often with disappointment and despair; they respond in his language of dense vocabulary, frequent use of alliteration, occasional rhyme, and irregular meter. The’ electric body’ has respectively become “an engine in a cloud” for Crane (line 46) and “the human engine” for Eliot (line 216). The bigger, better, faster future has become the grim, nostalgia-inducing present. The myth, in all its complex fury, is transferred from one articulation to the next.
Perhaps this allows for the more recent implications of a ballad as a love song or homage. It seems impossible to participate in an ongoing cultural dialogue without addressing the artists, writers, singers, movers and shakers who precede us. Odetta and Hart do this directly, purposefully, and with overwhelming sincerity.