For about three hours last night, from the anticipation to the grateful applause, there was a thick layer of happiness spread on the front yard of the Boott Cotton Mills in the form of a return engagement by Lyle Lovett and His Large Band. Again, as in past appearances, they conquered the night scene in Lowell, 2000 strong, on the Boarding House lawn. He offers a capacious show and presents as a generous host, giving a tour of American musical heritage, from country and blues to rockabilly, gospel, jazz, Souhern folk, swing, and more branches and hybrids. With 14 players and singers he packed the pavilion stage, which made for a dazzling visual in itself, the piano, horn section, and percussion section on risers. A couple of times during the evening, I thought to myself that the show was almost too good for the modest French Street address, that Lyle’s crew should be performing for 5,000 or 10,000 people at a different venue. What a privilege for us to get this kind of artistic excellence in our outdoor living room downtown. But I caught myself in mid-thought and re-thought the situation. In fact, this is exactly what Lowell has rebuilt itself to be, a place where such experiences are the norm. It was just right that they were here last night, as right as the other times they stopped by. The Lowell Summer Music Series delivered in size and intensity what Lyle and friends desired, a deep emotional response to their inspiring music. The people who arrived with blankets and folding chairs were pursuing happiness in the most basic sense. They wanted to feel good, really good, for a few hours, and they knew where to get it. There was something fundamentally American in the experience last night. You had a sense that the whole country was on display, from the hometowns of the band members to the roots of the various types of music. We heard Texas, Georgia, New York, Los Angeles, Tennessee, Washington, Boston, Grand Rapids, and many other place names.
Walt Whitman came to mind as I watched Lyle Lovett in the park. Whitman, in the Preface to the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” (1855), wrote: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He continued:
The American poets are to enclose old and new for America is the race of races. Of them a bard is to be commensurate with a people. To him the other continents arrive as contributions . . . he gives them reception for their sake and his own sake. His spirit responds to his country’s spirit. . . . he incarnates its geography and natural life and rivers and lakes. Mississippi with annual freshets and changing chutes, Missouri and Columbia and Ohio and Saint Lawrence with the falls and beautiful masculine Hudson, do not embouchure where they spend themselves more than they embouchure into him. The blue breadth over the inland sea of Virginia and Maryland and the sea off Massachusetts and Maine and over Manhattan bay and over Champlain and Erie and over Ontario and Huron and Michigan and Superior, and over the Texan and Mexican and Floridian and Cuban seas and over the seas off California and Oregon, is not tallied by the blue breadth of the waters below more than the breadth of above and below is tallied by him. When the long Atlantic coast stretches longer and the Pacific coast stretches longer he easily stretches with them north or south. He spans between them also from east to west and reflects what is between them. On him rise solid growths that offset the growths of pine and cedar and hemlock and liveoak and locust and chestnut and cypress and hickory and limetree and cottonwood and tuliptree and cactus and wildvine and tamarind and persimmon . . . and tangles as tangled as any canebrake or swamp . . . and forests coated with transparent ice and icicles hanging from the boughs and crackling in the wind . . . and sides and peaks of mountains . . . and pasturage sweet and free as savannah or upland or prairie . . . with flights and songs and screams that answer those of the wildpigeon and highhold and orchard-oriole and coot and surf-duck and redshouldered-hawk and fish-hawk and white-ibis and indian-hen and cat-owl and water-pheasant and qua-bird and pied-sheldrake and blackbird and mockingbird and buzzard and condor and night-heron and eagle. To him the hereditary countenance descends both mother’s and father’s. To him enter the essences of the real things and past and present events—of the enormous diversity of temperature and agriculture and mines—the tribes of red aborigines—the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports or making landings on rocky coasts—the first settlements north or south—the rapid stature and muscle—the haughty defiance of ’76, and the war and peace and formation of the constitution. . . . the union always surrounded by blatherers and always calm and impregnable—the perpetual coming of immigrants—the wharfhem’d cities and superior marine—the unsurveyed interior—the loghouses and clearings and wild animals and hunters and trappers. . . . the free commerce—the fisheries and whaling and gold-digging—the endless gestation of new states—the convening of Congress every December, the members duly coming up from all climates and the uttermost parts . . . the noble character of the young mechanics and of all free American workmen and workwomen . . . the general ardor and friendliness and enterprise—the perfect equality of the female with the male. . . . the large amativeness—the fluid movement of the population—the factories and mercantile life and laborsaving machinery—the Yankee swap—the New-York firemen and the target excursion—the southern plantation life—the character of the northeast and of the northwest and south-west—slavery and the tremulous spreading of hands to protect it, and the stern opposition to it which shall never cease till it ceases or the speaking of tongues and the moving of lips cease. For such the expression of the American poet is to be transcendant and new. It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality goes through these to much more. Let the age and wars of other nations be chanted and their eras and characters be illustrated and that finish the verse. Not so the great psalm of the republic. Here the theme is creative and has vista. Here comes one among the wellbeloved stonecutters and plans with decision and science and sees the solid and beautiful forms of the future where there are now no solid forms.