Sufjan Stevens and Resurrecting Small Town America
Sufjan Stevens and Resurrecting Small Town America
by Jaclyn Goddette
I discovered Sufjan Stevens' Illinois during a period in my life when my hometown was too small, an ill-fitting sweater. It was also a period in which I felt compelled to pin down the meaning of everything, so I spent a lot of time on songmeanings.com. I learned a lot about the album, like how Sufjan scoured historical records while also compiling personal anecdotes from friends and Internet chat room users during the album's songwriting phase. A lot of the allusions are to pretty famous events or figures—like the Sears Tower or Carl Sandburg, but I found myself drawn to reading about the localities mentioned in "Decatur, Or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!"
The song is about two brothers whose stepmother brings them to Decatur, a small city plopped in the middle of Illinois. The majority of "Decatur" catalogs the city's attractions. I liked reading comments from residents that recognized some of the oddities referenced, like the lion and kangaroo that "take" the stepmother to "the river where they caught a wild alligator."
Some thought this line was a reference to a local zoo, and others thought it was a reference to old wives tale about non-native animals being found in Decatur—the alligator part, however, is supposedly true, as some civilians found a baby alligator in a particularly warm part of the Sangamon River, which the city is situated along. It flows into the Illinois River, which in turn flows into the Mississippi River. According to the song, the Sangamon flooded once and washed up the skeletons of Civil War soldiers, whom the narrator imagines as clapping "in the spirit of the aviator." One commenter swore to the veracity of this detail.
Another line invokes the "chicken mobile with your rooster tail." A fast food restaurant, called Krekel's, owns a red-and-white-striped car fitted with a rooster head on the roof and a tail on the trunk. One commenter mentioned how high school seniors still ask to drive it for prom.
Those comments celebrating Decatur's quirks reminded me of some of the bragging rights of my own town. According to some accounts, we have the longest continuous winter carnival in the country. I've never had a better chicken fried steak than at our local diner. One of the 19th century's most widely despised robber barons built a country house here to escape the bustle of New York City only to be thrown out of his carriage and to his death during a fishing trip. My friends and I lost entire afternoons swimming under the waterfalls that used to power the town's economy.
But I was also reminded of what Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden in reference to the people living on the bank of another American river: "maybe the less you have, the more you are required to boast."
My hometown lies along a tributary of the Connecticut River surrounded by northern hardwood forests in New Hampshire. During the 20th century, it was a prosperous mill town. But the quaint mills were no match for larger economic trends, and Main Street has struggled to keep businesses since their closure.
Decatur has a similar history, at least according to the comments. "The city is dying and dangerously close to dead," ajknee wrote. "It is all run down factories and strip malls. There is one larger mall in the city but it is 80% empty." Another user, crazydude904, wrote "i recently moved from Decatur and never want to go back, and don't highly recommend the city for any one, just enjoy the song and dream :)."
The self-deprecation crept into other comments in a familiar way. The narrator of "Decatur" makes reference to Abraham Lincoln, who moved west to the city as a young man. "Steven A. Douglas was a great debater / But Abraham Lincoln was the great emancipator," Sufjan sings. A lot of people like the whimsy of these lines. But others used the opportunity to point out that Decatur can't truly claim Lincoln because he technically lived outside the city limits and left after only a year.
I worked at the local library in high school. The building once belonged to one of the town's wealthiest families. During lulls in my work, I'd wander in and out of the rooms, imaging what it would be like to live in its chambers. I'd find myself in the Hale Room, where the posters announcing the recipients of our library's literary award hung. Robert Frost, Arthur Miller, Maxine Kumin—an esteemed crowd.
Someone—another employee or a patron, perhaps—told me that in 1963 the trustees offered the award to John F. Kennedy for Profiles in Courage. He declined. The award has one condition: you must be present to receive the award, and he was scheduled to be in Dallas that fall.
This was around the same time I discovered Sufjan, and my daydreams began to change after I learned this. I would picture Kennedy's poster hanging up in the Hale Room, the entire course of American history forever altered because of our shabby mill town. It would make a good story.
At the end of "Decatur" after the narrator lists all the adventures they had in the city, he wonders why he and his brother regarded their stepmother with so much hate. He realizes they should "appreciate her / stand up and thank her." Other singers provide backup vocals, so the lyrics become chant-like until a harmonic offers the final note. As the song fades, there's clapping, maybe not unlike that of the civil war skeletons mentioned earlier. The applause continues into the following song on the album.
One songmeanings.com user, starpatroller, wrote:
"This is pretty much going out on a limb, but do y'all think that the stepmother this song speaks of is actually Decatur? One commenter noted how it's a not-so-pleasant city in reality, and perhaps that could tie in with the narrators' attempts to do "everything to hate her." Maybe these are people who aren't Decatur natives, but they had to move to Decatur (which is why it's referred to as a stepmother). Eventually, however, despite 'her' flaws, the narrators are able to see all her beauty and all her love and appreciate her."
I love this interpretation of the song: "Decatur" is about two brothers that learn to appreciate their stepmother, and her spectral figure operates as an extended metaphor for the city itself. A young person hating their hometown is almost as cliché as hating a stepparent.
I also now realize that starpatroller's interpretation would not exist if not for the all the comments that came before it. The stepmother doesn't function as a stand-in for Decatur if we didn't see the narrator's hatred for her mirrored in the city's inhabitants. The interpretative process rewards collaboration.
And an interesting interplay between art and reality reveals itself when I dug deeper. While some people claimed "Decatur" wasn't a truthful representation of the city because it neglected all the awful parts, others experienced an epiphany not unlike that of the brothers. As I kept reading, the comment section became a litany for a once forsaken place.
jonnyt101: "I always thought that all the other states had it was better than us, we just had corn and Chicago. I'm proud of it now. I love Illinois and where I'm from and what we have here. This song sort of sums it up, somehow."
a1is0n123456789: "allways forgot my memories of rural Illinois and this albulm has made me want to go back and really experience the historic ruralness of Illinois."
stupid_name: "if you've ever started a road trip early on some summer morning from Chicago, and headed west out through rural Illinois, just watching the farms go by and listening to the local radio stations, well, this song captures that feeling perfectly."
Listening to "Decatur" and reading the way it made people feel about where they came from helped me love my own origin. There are small cities and towns strewn across America, places like Decatur and my hometown, left behind in the rural exodus. "Decatur" reminds us that our old haunts have a future as well as a past.
Stevens once claimed that Illinois and Michigan were the first installments of a "50 States Project." Some people knew immediately that it was just a joke, a publicity stunt. I don't lament that there's not going to be an album about my state or a track about my town by Sufjan Stevens. There'll be other artists and there will be other art.
And if the art is half as fertile as "Decatur," natives and strangers alike will flock to the democratic medium of the Internet comment section. The connections made there will transform the work into something greater than the artist ever intended. Our lore will be resurrected, rising up from history like civil war skeletons clapping along the banks of American consciousness.