Born to poor Swedish immigrants in Galesburg, IL, in 1878, Carl August Sandburg would grow up to become the premier poet of the Midwest and a champion of the American folksong. He left school at 13 to become a day laborer and later served in the Spanish-American War. After returning to Galesburg, he continued his education at Lombard College and by 1902 received his first newspaper position in Milwaukee. In 1908 he married Lilian Steichen, sister of photographer Edward Steichen, whom he would remain with for the rest of his life. He worked for a short time as a secretary to Socialist Mayor Emil Seidel (1910-1912) and continued his newspaper career in 1917 at the Chicago Daily News. It was his poetry, however, that brought him to national attention in the mid-teens. Both Chicago Poems in 1916 and Cornhuskers in 1918 displayed Sandburg's penchant for the rhythm and conversational mode of American speech.
Sandburg also had an intense interest in folksongs. He began learning and collecting songs at 19 as he traveled west to the Kansas wheat fields in hopes of finding work. By the 1920s, he was in the habit of writing down songs on scraps of paper as he toured the lecture circuit; he also collected songs from friends, labor organizers, and folklorists (such as John Lomax). After the success of Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years in 1926, Sandburg decided to put together a collection of nearly 300 songs to be titled The American Songbag. The collection promoted the idea that the American folksong tradition was equal to its British counterpoint. The collection also proved unique for its time for including African-American folksongs. When published in 1927, the American Songbag, along with Sandburg's public performances of songs, helped to popularize the American folk music while also de-emphasizing the importance of the child ballad tradition.
Sandburg would continue to work on multiple projects, including the last four volumes of his Lincoln biography for which he would earn a Pulitzer Prize. He published Collected Poems in 1950, for which he won another Pulitzer Prize, and his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, in 1953. He continued to lecture in the 1960s and sang, played guitar, and read from his works on a number of television programs. Sandburg died at his family's 245 acre farm, Connemara, in Flat Rock, NC, on July 22, 1967. ~ Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.