Passing Through (1948): Song of Political Engagement
September 02, 2004
In the late 1940s, Dick Blakeslee, then a student at the University of Chicago, wrote Passing Through, an exceedingly simple, hopeful and politically committed song. The lyrics breathed the heady atmosphere of political liberalism and optimism that followed Allied victory in World War II and preceded the McCarthy era and Cold War freeze. In 1948, a hundred flowers bloomed and Passing Through epitomized this:
I saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called Calvary
"Do you hate mankind for what they done to you?"
He said, "Talk of love not hate, things to do -- it's getting late.
I've so little time and I'm only passing through."
Passing through, passing through.
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
glad that I ran into you.
Tell the people that you saw me passing through.
I saw Adam leave the Garden with an apple in his hand,
I said "Now you're out, what are you going to do?"
"Plant some crops and pray for rain,
maybe raise a little cane.
I'm an orphan now, and I'm only passing through."
I was with Washington at Valley Ford, shivering in the snow.
I said, "How come the men here suffer like they do?"
"Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right
even though they know they're only passing through"
I was with Franklin Roosevelt's side on the night before he died.
He said, "One world must come out of World War Two" (ah, the fool)
"Yankee, Russian, white or tan," he said, "A man is still a man.
We're all on one road, and we're only passing through."
"I rode with old Abe Lincoln on that train to Gettysburg
I said: "What are we gonna do?"
He said: "All men must be unconditionally free
Or there is no reason to be passing through."
--lyrics from LeonardCohenSite.com
(To see the lyrics as Cisco performed them, click Passing Through.)
Cisco Houston recorded Passing Through and it appears on Cisco Houston-The Folkways Years. CiscoHouston.com is a great resource both for more about this album and Cisco Houston's musical career in general.
I first heard Passing Through when Leonard Cohen recorded it around 1973 for his Essential Leonard Cohen. I loved the jauntiness and good humor which he inferred into the lyrics of a deeply political and spiritual song. Though for some reason he omitted Blakeslee's closing verse about Abe Lincoln. Perhaps it was too overtly political or Cohen didn't like the reference to "man" being unconditionally free?
Miraculously, Ron Cohen and Dave Samuelson have collected Blakeslee's original recording of the song on Songs for Political Action a massive 10-CD collection of politically engaged songs from the 1930s to 1950s.
Blakeslee himself became an English professor at various colleges and passed away in 2000. The University of Chicago Magazine carried a short obituary:
Richard C. Blakeslee, AB'43, AM'46, a professor emeritus of English, died April 7, 2000, in Santa Barbara, CA. He was 78. Blakeslee taught at Northwestern University, Wisconsin State College, and San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University), where he remained until his 1992 retirement. He was the author of the folk song "Passing Through."
Survivors include his wife, Pat; three daughters; a son; and nine grandchildren. He was a good man who appears to have lived a righteous life.
Hi, Richard Blakeslee is my Dad so of course I grew up with Passing Through and loved to watch its recording history. Just to set the record straight, the Abraham Lincoln verse was not written by my Dad, which may explain why it wasn't on the Leonard Cohen version. Also, the version my Dad wrote had "Men will suffer men will fight, die for what they think is right", not die for what is right. An important distinction and a change in the lyrics that bothered my Dad because of course it makes no sense to think there is always one "right" when it comes to war.
Posted by: Sarah Blakeslee at October 10, 2004 08:39 AM
Sarah: I am very touched that you commented on my post. Thanks for doing so. As you know, your dad provided the world with a great gift when he wrote "Passing Through."
One of the things I was most concerned of in writing this post was that I knew almost nothing about your father. Someone wrote me with the link to his obit in the UofC alumni mag. This provided some biographical material. But if there's anything else relevant to my post about your dad which you'd like me to add--or some place online that has such information--pls. let me know.
Do you know how the Lincoln verse came into existence? I like it, though it definitely has a different lyric character than the other verses he DID write..
Yes, that lyric change about what is "right" does make the verse quite different & I understand why your dad was so concerned about it (especially in light of the certitude our current pres. shows about all issues he views as "right").
Posted by: Richard Silverstein at October 10, 2004 08:49 PM