Song Beneath the Song: “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens


I WAS WATCHING an episode of Weeds a few years back—it was the one where Nancy Botwin makes out with the DEA agent—and just as they are about to get it on, a song came on in the background, a quiet song, a man singing softly over an acoustic guitar and a piano, a song of such power, such emotional depth, that it completely pulled me out of the scene. Mary-Louise Parker receded into the background, where the audio was supposed to be (there is such a thing as a tune being too good for a TV soundtrack). All I wanted was to hear that song from beginning to end, without the distraction of a pot plot.

The song was called “Holland,” and I’d never heard it before. But I immediately knew the artist—because his voice is so distinctive, but also because so few musicians are capable of this Pied Piper-like magic. It had to be, could only be, Sufjan Stevens.

Whenever I hear some music snob lament that music today sucks—a preposterous claim that bespeaks of tin ears, poor taste, or complete ignorance of what’s available; the rock star may be dead, but pop music is alive and well, and anyone who believes otherwise is just not paying attention—my first counter is always, “What about Sufjan?”

Even in the wackadoodle world of popular music, this guy is an enigma. His name was suggested to his parents by the founder of Subud, and is Islamic in origin, although he is a devout Christian. His brother is a successful marathon runner. His songs have long titles like “A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons” and “A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze” and “The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You’re Going to Have to Leave Now, or, ‘I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'” He wrote a multi-media symphony about the BQE. He records albums of Christmas music, without irony. His music runs the gamut, from folk to disco; he’s never content to rest on his artistic laurels, always seeking out new directions. And I defy you to name another musician of his stature who has an MFA—and from the New School, no less.

(Come on Feel the) Illinoise, the second installment in his proposed-but-as-yet-unfinished Fifty States Project, is, for my money, the best album made in the oughts. At turns lush and spare, it features the soaring“Chicago” (the best song of the decade, it says here), the frantic “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” the 5/4-time title track, and the devastatingly beautiful “Casimir Pulaski Day,” known in our house as, simply, “Sad Song.”

The Weeds incident was not the first example of Stevens’ power. When my son was two, he was having a tantrum, as two-year-olds will. As he screamed and complained, “Casimir Pulaski Day” came on the iPod. He immediately stopped crying, as if a button had been switched off on his back, and walked to the speakers, listening intently, spellbound by the music. “This is a sad song,” I told him. “Sad Song,” he repeated. And so it has remained.

I’ve listened to “Sad Song” hundreds if not thousands of times. I don’t mean I had it on while I was driving, or in the background with friends over; I’ve listened to it. I hummed the trumpet part to my daughter the night she was born. I’ve sung it to her and my son as a lullaby countless times, and each time, as I sing lyrics I know by heart, some new flash of insight hits me. It’s a song that never fails to move me.


“Casimir Pulaski Day,” the seventh track on the Illinoise, concerns a young man’s memory of the week leading up to the death of his dearest friend. It is unquestionably the best song ever written about a 12-year-old girl dying of bone cancer.

There is an adolescent and artless quality to the lyrics. There is no metaphor, no fancy fifty-cent words, no coherent structure. The story itself is poorly told; we must assemble and organize the traces of the narrator’s memory to deduce what happened. The music underscores this simplicity: the same four chords repeated over and over, uncluttered arrangement, none of the swirling synthesizers and female chorales and abrupt shifts in dynamics that characterize “Chicago” and “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts.”

But it is this very artlessness that makes the song so moving. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is artless in the way that The Catcher in the Rye is artless, its simplicity belying the thematic complexity lurking beneath the juvenile surface. This is a song about grief, about coping with the loss of a loved one, and, deeper still, about reconciling that death with the existence of a just and benevolent God, in Whom the narrator has grown up believing.

On closer inspection, there is a distinct design to the lyrics. The repetition of key words—night, face, morning, glory, window, shoulder—suggests a sestina and hints at the larger story.  The vignettes remembered by the narrator—the futile night at the Bible study, the kiss at Michael’s house, meeting her father at the top of the stairs, and so forth—are not chronological, but seem to come to the narrator as he speaks.

Following is my analysis of the lyrics. SPOILER ALERT! Because I don’t want to ruin the experience for you, if you’re unfamiliar with the song, I urge you to listen to it now. You can do so on YouTube and Spotify, but you should really just download the track. It’s worth the 99 cents, I promise.

The I stands for Illinois.


First verse:

Goldenrod and the 4H stone
The things I brought you when I found out
You had cancer of the bone

The unusual and useless items hint at the narrator’s age—probably 12 or 13, on the cusp of puberty—when he finds out she has bone cancer.

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

The most cryptic passage in the song; chronologically, the last event that happens (see below).

In the morning, through the window shade
With the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
I could see what you were reading

He’s walking by her house. This tells us that they’re neighbors. The exact nature of her reading material is never revealed; it could be the Bible, or perhaps a love letter—something that was special to the two of them.

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications you could do without
When I kissed you on the mouth

The first line will be repeated several times throughout the song; this is its first appearance. There is the whiff of irony about its use, but its meaning is still unclear now. What is not unclear is how he feels about her: not just love, but romantic love, probably the first time he’s felt it.


Second verse:
Tuesday night at the Bible study
We lift our hands and pray over your body
But nothing ever happens

We know she died on a Monday, because Casimir Pulaski Day is observed as a holiday in Illinois on the first Monday in March (see below). “Tuesday,” then, is a week before she died.

“Bible study” tells us that they are both religious Christians, and go to the same church. This and the proximity of their houses suggests that they’ve known each other for some time.

The line “nothing ever happens” not only tells us that the Bible study group has prayed for her on many occasions, but hints at the agnostic doubts that have begun to creep into the narrator’s mind.

I remember at Michael’s house
In the living room when you kissed my neck
And I almost touched your blouse

Michael is probably a friend, or perhaps the adult who leads the Bible study group. “You kissed my neck” reveals her feelings about the narrator—she loves him, too. “I almost touched your blouse” reinforces the suggestion in the first verse that the narrator is 12 or 13; any younger and he wouldn’t be trying for second base; any older and he wouldn’t mention it.

In the morning at the top of the stairs
When your father found out what we did that night
And you told me you were scared

My guess is that “what we did that night” was spend the night together in her bed. Not in a sexual way; in a tender, supportive, hold-me-don’t-leave-me-alone way.

All the glory when you ran outside
With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied
And you told me not to follow you

Again, not so glorious. He screwed up. He tried to get a little further—he touched her blouse this time—and she didn’t like it. She tucked in her shirt for emphasis, but she didn’t bother with the shoes.

Then we have a break in the song, and a hauntingly simple, achingly beautiful trumpet takes the melody. This represents a change in her physical condition, and his emotional one.


Third verse:
Sunday night when I cleaned the house
I found the card where you wrote it out
With the pictures of your mother

He’s in her house, not his. The hospice nurse is there (see below). Her father is with her. He’s making himself useful, tidying up, and comes across this special artifact. Her mother is not there, and the only way she wouldn’t be sitting with her dying daughter is if she were already dead. Death is no stranger to this house.

On the floor at the Great Divide
With my shirt tucked in and my shoes untied
I am crying in the bathroom

It’s the moment of truth. They know it’s almost over. The “Great Divide” is what separates the living from the dead. He notices that his shirt is tucked in and his shoes are untied, as hers were when he took it too far, and that sets him off. He finally breaks down, in the bathroom, away from the bed.

In the morning when you finally go
And the nurse runs in with her head held low
And the cardinal hits the window

It’s the next day, Monday. She held on longer than expected. The presence of the nurse indicates a hospice situation. And no sooner does the girl die than a bird crashes into the window. Her window. The same one he used to look into.

In the morning in the winter shade
On the first of March, on the holiday
I thought I heard you breathing

He came into the room and saw her body. He thought she was still alive, but she wasn’t. She was gone.

All the glory that the Lord has made
And the complications when I see His face
In the evening in the window

Chronologically, this is a bit later, after the funeral probably. He’s reflecting on what has happened. The “complications” are his own feelings about God and religion. All that belief, all that prayer, and for what? God took her anyway. It’s not God’s face but his own that he sees in the mirror of the evening window. Message: he is alone in the world.

All the glory when He took our place
But He took my shoulders and He shook my face
And He takes and He takes and He takes

The first line—“when He took our place”—is shorthand for Jesus dying on the cross, sacrificing Himself so that we can all be saved. But the narrator is angry at Jesus, angry at God, for taking not only the love of his life, not only her mother, but also her father (“He takes” is repeated, crucially, three times). Now the cryptic passage from the first verse makes more sense:

Your father cried on the telephone
And he drove his car into the Navy yard
Just to prove that he was sorry

Her father spoke to the narrator, tried to explain himself (Had he denied her medical assistance for religious reasons? Was there some way that he felt responsible for what happened?), and then, tragically, “drove his car into the Navy Yard,” that is, off a bridge. He committed suicide. And the narrator has lost the entire beloved family.

As long as he lives in Illinois, the narrator will have no school or work on the day she died. The rest of the state will unknowingly observe her death. But the cruel irony is that she died on a day already reserved for a long-dead military man with an egergiously masculine name. This poor little girl, recipient of goldenrod and the 4H stone, the love of the narrator’s life, will forever be associated with, and overshadowed by, the cold and manly Casimir Pulaski.

SONG BENEATH THE SONG, which title we’ve purloined from the (fine) Maria Taylor tune of the same name, is an occasional feature in which we attempt to decode the meaning of popular song lyrics.

About Greg Olear

Greg Olear (@gregolear) is a founding editor of The Weeklings and the author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker, an L.A. Times bestseller.
This entry was posted in Song Beneath the Song and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

91 Responses to Song Beneath the Song: “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens

  1. Kirsten says:

    I think the middle verses are much later in life, contemporary to when he writes the song. He’s cleaning his house and finds an old card from her. I think the Great Divide is a bar or club or some venue (Maybe Ralph’s Great Divide in Indianapolis?) he’s maybe playing there or just there and it’s soon after he’s found the card and the memories come back and hit him hard and he ends up crying on the bathroom floor. But of course he also is well aware of the resonance of the name.
    I don’t know why I really think this, it just feels right, that pulling back and looking from a distance. But it could also be contemporary with the events of the story, but I do think the narrator is cleaning his house and think the Great Divide is both a literal and metaphorical place.

    • Major Weekling says:

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment.

      I like your take on it. The Sunday-much-later throws off my chronology, but the one piece of my analysis I’m not comfortable with is the Great Divide. It’s out of character for him to use a metaphor/euphemism like that, as he doesn’t do it in the rest of the song at all. I think you’re right about that, especially if there is a club called that in Indiana — close enough to Illinois. Good call, Kirsten.

  2. MC says:

    Why do you assume that this is about a girl? There is never mention of the person’s gender

    • Mike says:

      The girl who died is being addressed, and so the pronouns used by the narrator are “you” and “your.” However, the lyrics “And I almost touched your blouse” reveal that the narrator is clearly speaking/singing about a girl.

      • Greg says:

        Mike beat me to it. Boys don’t wear blouses. Or at least, they don’t call them that.

        • Potato says:

          They are talking about a different blouse-a fitted navy jacket whatcha is clear because of the line “ and he drove his car to the navy yard just to prove he was sorry” also “and the complications we could do without when I kissed you on the mouth” stating the complex circumstances of their relationship, as their dad was presumptuously homophobic. Also I believe Sufjan Stevens is not straight…

  3. MC says:

    Actually, I think the song is purposely ambiguous when it comes to the gender of the friend with cancer. Check out this article about Casimir Pulaski him?self:

  4. Beth says:

    “Casimir Pulaski Day” is one of my all-time favourite songs. I enjoyed reading your comments and analysis. While I agree that the lyrics indicate that the singer is experiencing doubt and anger in his faith, I feel that the reason the song is so compelling is the contrast between the words and the music. After the last lines of the lyrics– “And He takes, and He takes, and He takes”– you would expect the music to end, but it doesn’t; it grows in strength and beauty, adding voices all the while. To me, it sounds like a celebration, and that is why the song is so powerful– the music at the end, in my ears, says, “Yes, there is pain, suffering, and death, but there is also life and celebration, and despite the darkness, I still believe in the light.”

    • The Editors says:

      Beth, that’s an excellent point, and beautifully conveyed. I hadn’t thought about that, but you’re right about the music at the end and what it means.

      Thanks for reading and sharing!

  5. Frances says:

    It’s funny–I was just telling a friend about this song and used the phrase “beautiful and devastating” to describe it. Thank you for the explanation of the navy yard–I’ve struggled with that one for a long time. I like Beth’s reading of the song very much. The narrator is clearly angry with God, but I don’t think his feelings are leading him toward some kind of agnosticism. You can be mad at God without concluding He doesn’t exist.

    I’m interested in the fact that you put the narrator’s age at 12 or 13. I’ve always thought he was a little older–more like sixteen. But a younger narrator does explain some of the more child-like details (4-H artifacts, untied shoes, etc.).

    Anyway, thank you for this. A great piece.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading and writing in, Frances. I too struggled with that Navy Yard line…what Navy Yard? is there a Navy Yard in Illinois?…and I’ve come to conclude that that’s what it might mean. But I’ve always felt that these were basically kids who, if she were not dying, would be at that “he likes me” stage, and that the circumstances demanded that they go farther, emotionally and physically, than they otherwise would have.

      And I love what Beth wrote about the ending. Wish I’d thought of that!

      Thanks again.


      • ben says:

        Isn’t the Navy Yard was a park in the south of Chicago – like near Lincoln Park or something, where there’s museums and stuff for families to do? I always thought that driving there would be a place the dad had taken the kids to, and him driving back down there was a token gesture to her memory and happier times.
        Though driving to a navy yard meaning “into the yard where ships ‘play’ (?), i.e., off a bridge, is an insightful take on it.

        • Ramon says:

          You might be thinking of Navy Pier, which I don’t think quite fits into the song.

          I’ve always interpreted it to mean that the father drove to the place where the narrator works (The Navy Yard), to apologize in person.

  6. Dani says:

    I was so pleased to find this blog entry and find that someone else has been as deeply touched and mesmerized by this song as myself. I’ve had brief song obsessions in the past, but this song is often present in my mind. It is so eloquent, direct & indirect, and simply beautiful. I don’t find myself to be a religious individual (I don’t support organized religion), however, I have faith. This song taps into that faith and begs for further exploration of myself, the universe, and myself within the universe. Something else that touched myself similarly to this was J.D. Salinger’s short story “Teddy” (found in his collection of short stories: Nine Stories). I highly recommend it.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks so much for reading, Dani, and leaving the comment. The song does indeed tap into faith, and there is a Salingerian deliberately-artless quality about it.


  7. Nora says:

    This piece made me cry in that really good cathartic way that you cry when someone has written something that tells your story even if it didn’t mean to.

    I’m eighteen, so I’m older than the narrator of this song. But my friend died in December and he was the first person I’ve ever known to die, besides old people where it was expected.

    I listened to this song every day he was in the hospital and it was a weird comfort to me. And after he died I learned to play it on the ukulele and it made me feel better to sing it. But I could never explain why it made me feel the way it did. But reading this made me get it a little bit. I’m not sure why. I think it has to do with what you said about the narrator’s anger with God. It’s kind of a song about disillusionment, the kind of disillusionment I felt when my friend died. But I like what Beth said too, about the ending. And it makes me think that this maybe isn’t a song about disillusionment after all. And that maybe it shouldn’t be called “sad song”.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this piece. You have no idea how much it helped me.

    • The Editors says:

      Nora, thanks so much for writing in. I’m so sorry to hear about your loss, and I’m touched that reading this helped you. And I think that you are right, that my categorization of it as “sad song” is too easy…better would be “song that makes me cry.”

      And thanks for the book rec…I’ve heard that from several people now, so I think I’ll have to check it out.


    • CJ says:

      This song came on for the first time when I was going from the crash site to the hospital where my friend died 3 days later, also in December. I was young too, 20 at the time, and this song’s beauty really got me through by helping me cry when I was holding it back.

  8. Nora says:

    Oh, and this song also reminds me of a really good book called The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. And I highly recommend it.

  9. Paul says:

    I have loved this sone for a long time. Great article and I am so happy I found it. Thank you.

  10. Paul says:

    I have loved this song for a long time. Great article and I am so happy I found it. Thank you.

  11. Tom says:

    Thanks for taking the time out to analyze this song. While I take my own meaning and comfort from this song, it was really refreshing to spend some time reading through your interpretation of it.

    Thank you.

  12. CW says:

    I heard this song for the first time in a couple years today, just in the background at a coffee shop. It hit me that it was so beautiful and it had to have a deeper meaning, one that I’d never thought about before. I looked it up and was blown away by your post/analysis. Gave me a greater appreciation for the song as a piece of art, and an expression of people dealing with questions about God. Thanks for writing and sharing.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks so much, CW. I heard the song once at a liquor store, where I had popped in to buy a bottle of wine, and it totally pulled me out of what I was there to do. It has that power. Really glad you found my piece. Thanks for the kind words.

  13. Steve Clancy says:

    I love this song and enjoyed reading your commentary. Just wanted to share my interpretation of the “pictures of your mother”. My thought was the girl left him a card with pictures of her mother as a young woman as a kind of momento so he could imagine her as the woman she would never grow up to be. What she wrote out was what how she felt about him, which is why he’s crying in the bathroom before she’s gone. That’s how I always imagined it anyway.

    Also found this early demo of the song – it’s a little less innocent, but also has a sweet moment about wanting to protect the girl.

    • The Editors says:

      One of the great pleasures of posting this piece is having really astute people see my interpretation and raise it. Thanks for this insight, Steve…I think you may be right.

      And thanks for the link!


  14. Jordan says:

    It seems to me that it is not a coincidence that Sufjan says “All the glory when He took our place” right before he says “And He takes, and he takes, and he takes.” Could this be a reference to God taking his pain, grief, and burdens? That’s one way to interpret it.

    • Gabriel says:

      I assumed ‘and he takes and he takes and he takes’ is a reference to Job 1:21 — ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’.

      It’s a common phrase, basically meaning that everything given will one day end (the context is ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither’). The repetition, in my reading, merely emphasises the end of things — the lord taking away — is more significant than the gift (which is represented by Christ’s sacrifice).

      The author’s interpretation that the 3 repetitions signifies the 3 deaths also works, though.

      • Paul T says:

        The use of threefold repetition is most likely, I believe, to be simply following the classic ‘rule of three’ writing tool. In this case I would take it as a simple emphasis of the narrator’s unhappiness of the one-sidedness of the ‘first he giveth’ deal, and perhaps the beginning of a questioning of the narrator’s faith.

  15. Seth says:

    I had no idea there were so many other people that are moved so deeply by this song. I’ve been listening to it for 7ish years and it still moves me to tears from time to time. Great write-up, Greg.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks so much for reading, Seth, and for the kind words. The song really moves a lot of people, as I’ve discovered after posting this.

  16. Pingback: Kyle’s Favorite 100 Songs: 30-21 | Airwaves

  17. Great post. I came upon your blog while doing research for a series I am working on that is analyzing the Illinois album on a track by track basis. I find this album to be a great stepping off point for further exploring the state and its history. I love the music but am struck by the recurring themes of disappointment that he expresses through the album. He seems like a very positive person as a musician, but Illinois seems to have let him down. Which is funny because it is possibly his best album.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks so much, Rob. Glad you found your way here. I think you’re right that Illinois has disappointed him, although so too did Michigan…and there does seem to be a hopefulness eking through the sadness on many of the songs, “Casimir” in particular.

      Please do let me know when your series is done; I’d love to read it.


  18. Dev says:

    It isn’t entirely illogical to suggest that the narrator and the girl are neighbors, or that the girl is treated at home rather than in a hospital, but none of these things definitely happens in the song, and there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that they did. But I found the bit about the father committing suicide REALLY staggering–I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times and that has never occurred to me, but I think you’re right. It makes this song so much sadder than it already is….

    I did find it interesting that you pegged the two children at twelve and thirteen. It does make sense, considering the goldenrod and the 4-H stone, but I guess in spite of that I always assumed they were older–sixteen, seventeen, maybe? Old enough to want to date–except for the fact that this girl has cancer, which accounts for “the complications [she] could do without”: what happens if they get serious and she dies?–which, of course, she does.

    I can’t remember where I read this (maybe on, but another listener suggested that the tucked-in shirt and untied shoes might be a metaphor for a person who is attempting to pull himself together–look presentable, tuck in that shirt–but is still not able to succeed–those shoes are still untied. And when you look at a person, the first thing you’ll see is his shirt, and it’s unlikely you’ll even notice his shoes for a little while–i.e., the narrator seems fine, but if you look closer, he’s falling apart. (Obviously, he breaks down “in the bathroom”–a private spot, where no one will see him.)

    As for cleaning the house–I do see how it could be her house he’s cleaning. I always assumed it was his, but there’s no evidence to support that. I just thought of it as he’s trying to busy himself with something, because there’s nothing else he can do. The card I imagined the girl wrote to him, perhaps explaining why their relationship wouldn’t work out. Obviously, her mother is not in the picture, and her father has something to be sorry about, so the conclusions I draw are 1) the mother has already died of cancer (as you suggested), and the daughter knows the same fate awaits her; or 2) the mother and father are divorced, and the girl fears a relationship with the narrator will result unhappily as well. I’m inclined to believe her mother died, though.

    I didn’t think “And He takes, and He takes, and He takes” necessarily referred to the deaths of the girl, her mother, and her father, although I see how you interpret it as such. I just thought it was a general frustration with God and His ostensible unfairness, but that’s not too different from your own interpretation–my main point is that the narrator is trying to remind himself that God has made sacrifices for him, for the world, but in the end that frustration can’t help coming back in full force. I find this song particularly beautiful because of that. It seems like a lot of Christian artists–Christians in general–would have you believe that they are always reliant on God, even when they have no idea what He’s about. This kind of situation–the death of a loved one–would make anybody have doubts, and I love that Sufjan didn’t try to sugarcoat that with, “Oh, but God always knows what’s best, and things will work out in the end,” because even if you do know that that’s true, generally, it doesn’t mean you always feel it. This is the realest song I have ever heard.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks so much for sharing, Dev. I appreciate the insights. The father suicide part is my bigest stretch, but I do think it’s there, and it sure does deepen the song.


  19. Heather says:

    I think the shirt tucked in and shoe untied has a lot more meaning than led on. It’s a sign of composure. You tuck your shirt in to look presentable, to tidy yourself up. So, her/his shirt is tucked in showing a sign of composure on the outside, but the shoes being untied shows they are broken and falling apart on the inside.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading, Heather, and apologies for the delayed reply. Yes, I agree. There’s certainly more weight to it because it is repeated.

  20. Jyll says:

    “This is the realest song I have ever heard.” Dev, that is perfect. My feelings exactly.

  21. Hope says:

    I love this song and it has comforted/moved me many times. I guess in an effort to add to the conversation: I agree with your interpretation about the Great divide but in an effort to relate it back to Illinois, I’m thinking that maybe it relates to the continental divide in Illinois (interesting because the article mentions the canal built at this divide made the Calumet rivers “run backward”- an interesting parallel to this song) or possibly the divide in the war that Pulaski fought in. I have no clue, just thoughts.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading, Hope, and apologies for the delayed reply. This is an interesting point…it’s maybe the most obscure line in the song, and I’m sure Sufjan knew about this, as he supposedly studied lots of this sort of material before making the album. — Greg

  22. Kelly says:

    Wonderful analysis. The song remind’s me of an exclamation from Roberto Benigni’s character in Down by Law: “It is a sad and beautiful world.”

    The “Navy Yard” line is tough to tease out. There is the famous Navy Pier in Chicago, a place that has been a center for family entertainment for a century. It has had picnic grounds, a Ferris Wheel (possibly the site of the very first Ferris Wheel built for the chicago world’s fair if memory serves), boat rides, etc. It has long been a destination for people coming in from suburbs and surrounding rural areas (as the 4-H club and depth of religious involvement suggests) So possible the father drove to the place where some of his fondest memories, or memories of better times, where made. What he is “sorry” for is ambiguous, my take is it’s just the normal regrets one has when they lose someone they love.

    Another take is that perhaps the narrator is re-telling this story now several years removed, and he was at one time stationed in the Great Lakes Naval Station in the far northern suburbs when the father drove out to apologize for his anger/rage that was perhaps inappropriately directed towards the narrator during the progress of the daughter’s illness.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading, Kelly, and apologies for the delayed reply. “Navy Yard” is also a hard one to pin down…but how else does he “prove” he was sorry than offing himself? And what about the word “into”? If he just went someplace, there are a lot of other ways to construct the sentence: “He drove up to the Navy Yard,” for one. A very odd line, and so early in the song. Lots to think about. — Greg

  23. Kelly says:

    whatever the case may be, I highly recommend to everyone who is a fan that they try to find a high-quality video of Sufjan performing this song and Jacksonville on Austin City Limits several years ago.

    Here’s a cheap youtube copy

  24. Paul Amesbury says:

    The 4-H ‘STONE’ is a shamROCK.. or 4 leaf clover and like Golden Rod is a symbol of good luck. A gift for someone who needed all the luck they could get. (plus it rhymed with bone)
    A beautiful song from a beautiful album.

    • The Editors says:

      Ooo, shamrock. I like it! I’m sold. Thanks so much, Paul.

    • Ian says:

      I have no idea if this is the right interpretation of shamROCK being his inspiration to use Stone as “slang.”

      Either way, I hope this is what it means. If so, I have a greater appreciation for this particular line.

  25. dan says:

    I think they both went to catholic school together. hence their shirts tucked in and all the religious references. when he sees the lords face in the morning in the window could be a stained glass window with jesus that he sees every morning at school.

    • The Editors says:

      Thanks for reading, Dan, and apologies for the delayed reply. I don’t think they are Catholic. As a lapsed Catholic, I can say that we don’t call it “Bible study.” It’s “Sunday school” or “CCD.”

  26. dan says:

    there’s an irony that he he repeat’s “all the glory that the lord has made”
    it has a sarcastic note conveying his doubt in the teachings he has learned together with the girl who was taken from him

    • The Editors says:

      I think a better word is “ironic.” All the glory that the Lord has made, and He taketh away the one thing I care about most.

  27. jake says:

    as I grow up being the youngest of three I find myself doing everything early, weather that’s walk down to the sonic across the neighborhood or being introduced to counter-American cultured music. For the past 5 years since my brother has been able to drive I have always heard the alternative style of music he has chosen in the car and I am always caught off guard when I hear the soothing hum of a particular singer song writer. I never knew what was different about this one that made the exception in his meticulous playlists- that was until this past year. Growing older I have become fully aware of the underlying genius behind soft melodies and seemingly infinite guitar rifts of sufian stevens. just as you have shown I have also been especially attracted to “Casmir Pulaski Day.” you were able to portray the underlining meanings of the almost random lyrics beautifully and it was very interesting to see your ideas about it. I was especially taken aback by the age you speculated the narrator being. As a 13 year old boy I enjoyed the idea of even the youth having a complex and beautiful romance that was in my mind reserved for those older than me. Thanks for giving me new insights on a beloved song and its nice to see a fellow sufian lover! P.S. I’ve always pondered on the lyrics of “for the widows in paradise…” and I would love to see someone like you with a gift of interpretation of music write something on it.

  28. Jenetta says:

    Greg ( major weekling?) your description of this song is perfect, in every possible way. So glad to know there are souls in the world like you. I’ve always heard the song exactly as you describe.

  29. S B says:

    Your initial summary is wonderful… I 100% agree with the beauty coming from his portrayal of the song in the stream of consciousness imagery of a middle schooler (similar to the way Elton John’s “your song” achieves its art by conjuring the songwriting and thought of a sub-par songwriter, even though Sir Elton himself is an excellent songwriter and the song is an excellent song).

    The “great divide” is possibly the historical “great divide” (continental divide) between the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds, located in Oak Park, Illinois, a close Chicago suburb. Why did he choose this? Maybe he did like the image of the great divide meaning between life and death. He does love rich imagery and double meaning.

    What I think is left uncertain in that episode is whether the narrator cried on the floor when the beloved died, or the girl wrote on the “card…with the pictures of [the beloved’s] mother” that she cried at the great divide, presumably when her mother died.

    I would also say that I don’t find any reason to believe this is a one-week process. “Nothing Ever Happens” suggests a process that lasted through multiple Tuesday-night Bible studies that included prayers for healing.

    As for the Navy yard, whether it was a suicide, or even fatal, (perhaps he is ironically described as “proving he was sorry,” accidentally crashing the car in his sorrow… That’s Sufjan’s brand of dark humor), it isn’t made clear that the father’s actions were in response to the beloved’s death. The line comes directly after the narrator finds out about the cancer, and it could be his grief at the diagnosis, which would make the chronology match up better.

    The lyric after “on the Holiday” is “I thought I saw you breathing,” as opposed to “heard.” This makes it not an imagining of her presence, but an actual viewing of the body when they are brought in by the nurse, and the narrator is hopeful for a miracle and for a second believes that the beloved is actually still breathing. That leaves him even more crushed, and even more let down, leading into the final 2 stanzas of grief and disillusionment.

    The second to last stanza, you really nailed it. The narrator feels alone. God is not in the room with him (or outside if he is looking in a window), but “through the window,” and at that point seems inaccessible. Great analysis. A beautiful thought.

    The final stanza, I had never thought of the idea that he was recounting three deaths. That is intriguing, a very clever thought on your part. I like it a lot.

    Regardless, the final stanza is primarily doing two things:
    1) Cleverly playing off the verb “take” used in both “took our place” (died on the cross) as well as “he takes” (takes away, Job 1:21). He took our place, but he has taken the narrator by the shoulders and shaken him awake to the reality of the world (he is only 12 or so), by taking away the dearest thing in the world (the “delight of [his] eyes” Ezek 24:15-18), and perhaps some more loved ones.
    He just keeps taking and taking. Very Sufjan-clever.
    2) Keeping the “took our place” in there as a reminder of the light, as other commenters have mentioned. The narrator knows he ought to have the heart of Job in the 1:21 passage, and so he proclaims the glory, even though all he is left with is the pain and the realization of the other side of things. The narrator must remember the light and unbounded benevolence on the other side of existence ( of the window?) in order to face the suffering and loss on this side, and possibly to avoid giving in to the probable fate of the beloved’s father.

    Finally, incredible point about the Holiday and how the person and name of Casimir Pulaski interplay with the softness and youth and emotion of the narrator’s personal remembrance of the holiday. I loved that. Overall. Loved the article. Thank you so much. The song means so much to me, and some of the points that you’ve made truly enrich that.


  30. S B says:

    Forgot to add, the Navy Yard is possibly Naval Station Great Lakes, the site of the U.S. Navy’s boot camp, Naval museums, etc. It is located near North Chicago, and may have a navy yard associated with it.

    Just interesting. It doesn’t change your astute analysis, or the meaning of the overall lyric. The father still “drove into” it. I doubt he did so peacefully, sat there, cried, and then said “I’ve now proven I’m sorry.”

  31. Owen says:

    “With the light pressed up against your shoulderblade
    I could see what you were reading”

    This talks about the day 3/4 through the treatment when her bone cancer was so bad he theroizes that her bones are probably transaparent by now.

  32. veronica says:

    Hi. Great analysis! I do interpret a few pieces slightly differently. I guess that is part of the beauty of a song writer who writes about complicated subjects.

    When she runs into the woods with her shoes untied I have always thought she feels defeated and vulnerable and runs off alone to hide. Maybe she needed to go sob somewhere without having to keep up a brave face. I never thought he was pressuring her sexually. But this was a big moment for him, as he was realizing his comfort wasn’t going to save her.

    As far as the religious references I do not think it is hinting at agnosticism, but definitely anger. It is almost like he is mad because he feels god has not held up his end of the bargin. I wouldn’t think the prayers at the bible study would stick out so much if he didn’t feel cheated. The lack of consideration there might not be a god also makes me think this is a preteen: he still considers it a given.

  33. Camille says:

    Casimir Pulaski day
    I would like to say first that I enjoyed reading your analysis.
    Here are some of my interpretations/observations/ideas:

    First, in terms of navy yard…he could be talking about the Great Lakes Naval base in Illinois. I always bought that the father didn’t die (I’ll talk about that more later) but just drove his car into what I thought sounded like a junk yard.

    I find it interesting that
    “Tuesday night at the Bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens” is the only paragraph in present tense (there are some lines in present tense but most lines and paragraphs are in past tense)

    “In the morning, at the top of the stairs/When your father found out what we did that night/And you told me you were scared
    All the glory when you ran outside/With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied/And you told me not to follow” I felt it was not that he screwed up but that she knew her father was mad about whatever they did last night (I always thought it was more sexual but I like the interpretation that it was more platonic) and she didn’t want to be seen with him. She ran outside in a rush to get away and thus her shirt was tucked in but she didn’t have time to tie her shoes.

    I was under the impression that the great divide was some religious facility or funeral home. With his shirt tucked in and his shoes untied just shows how much of a mess he is just like she was the day after. I don’t know what the more “right” interpretation is but I do think that he and she are connected through that line in some ways.

    I didn’t think that the father died…I always thought that the repetition of “and He takes” was just symbolic. In Catholicism the number three is very symbolic. Like the father, the son, and the Holy Spirit are three. Also in the celebratory mass some responses are repeated three times such as “lamb of God you take away the sins of the world have mercy on us (x2) Lamb of God you take away the sins of the world grant us peace” so I felt the repetition of “and he takes” was similar to the symbolism of the number three.

  34. Camille says:

    Also in regards to the golden rod and 4H stone, I thought this observation on yahoo answers was insightful
    “goldenrod and the 4-H stone are gifts that he gave to his friend when they found out she had cancer. Goldenrod is just a flower. 4-H is a farming club for kids, kind of like Boy Scouts, so I’m assuming the stone is just something he made for her in 4-H. Their symbol is the four leaf clover. I’ve heard some say that the cardinal hitting the window is sort of a symbol of something unexpected (like the cancer), but it could also tie into the line “He takes and He takes and He takes.” In other words, not only does God take his friend, but he takes the cardinal too. Also,consequently, the cardinal IS the official state bird of Illinois.”
    I know that you said earlier that our religious Ed is usually called Sunday school or ccd and I agree with that but it says on Tuesday night at the bible study which I take to mean an actual bible study or small group in addition to Sunday school.
    Anyway, thank you for the analysis. It was very beautifully written and it opened my mind to ideas that I had originally missed.

    • MC says:

      Cardinal isn’t just a bird, but also a color. I feel pretty confident Stevens is referring to the sunrise shining red light through the window. No bird involved.

      His friend dies as the morning sun is rising on a winter day, throwing a red light on the window. He sees God’s face in the majesty of that sunrise and in his grief and anger asks why must God take and take and take. Powerful stuff. But no bird.

      An important lyric in the above analysis in incorrect. In the song, it’s, “…when I see His face in the morning in the window.” Not the evening.

      In the morning when you finally go
      And the nurse runs in with her head held low
      And the cardinal hits the window

      In the morning in the winter shade
      On the first of March, on the holiday
      I thought I saw you breathing

      All the glory that the Lord has made
      And the complications when I see His face
      In the morning in the window

      This all happens at once, when his friend dies as the sun rises on Casimir Pulaski Day.

  35. Greg says:

    The cardinal hits the window.

    I first heard this song a few minutes ago, and then found your comments.

    I shuddered at the line “and the cardinal hits the window.” One March morning in 1987 I was visiting my parents when a cardinal flew repeatedly into the family room window. My dad said that when he was growing up his family had always said when that happens, someone in the house was going to die. The bird was there to carry the soul off to heaven. That night we got the call that my younger brother, who was traveling, had died. Since then I’ve heard a few other references to this sort of thing (“On the Wings of a Snow White Dove” and Nanci Griffith’s “Gulf Coast Highway” are two examples).

    In this song I picture the young boy at her hospital or hospice at the moment of her death, and he describes that moment as when the bird hits the window.

    Many personal connections to this day — my birthday is on Casimir Pulaski Day, and my ancestors were some of the first homesteaders in Pulaski County, MO.

    Thanks for you analysis of the song – I enjoyed it.


  36. Jennifer says:

    I think the “Great Divide” may refer to several places around Chicago that point out that Chicago is the location of the watershed divide between the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. There is one in Oak Park, as well as a monument commemorating Marquett and Joliet’s portage into the Illinois interior. The Navy yard may refer to Great Lakes Naval Base, or Navy Peer.

    One of the things I like the most about this album, is that the song writer actually took the time to get to know the state, not just Chicago. Songs about several downstate towns (Peoria, Jacksonville, Decatur, even Metropolis) with very specific references to local subjects. As a downstater, it’s one of my favorite albums.

  37. Erin says:

    I dont think he was 12 or 13, often people are sexually repressed in a christian setting which is why he would be nervous to touch their blouse, but also the only times in his earlier life (before 30ish) when Casimir Pulaski Day fell on March 1st was when he was 6, 17, and 19.

  38. h em says:

    i think she ran away because at that point they all knew she wasn’t going to make it, and the happiness from being with the narrator became unbearable since it wasn’t going to last. Just my take. Also, possibly, they may have thought that sex would ‘fix’ her– not in an awful sleazy way, but in an innocent, even desperate way. Again, just my take… This is easily one of my favorite songs of all time; i was once waiting for my mom in a Las Vegas parking lot and the sky was full of fluffy scudding clouds, the wind was blowing hotly, and this came on my iPod. Pretty sure i was changed fundamentally, almost alchemically in those moments.

    Anyway, thank you for the fantastic insight and well-written piece. i look forward to more! (Also: love the story about your two-year-old. ‘Sad Song’. <3)

  39. Shawn says:

    I don’t think it’s a safe assumption that the person the narrator is talking about is a girl. I think it’s left purposely ambiguous–there are lines that hint towards girl (“blouse”) and some that hint towards guy (“shirt tucked in and shoes untied”).

    The ambiguity of the gender love interests in Sufjan songs is a recurring theme, actually.

  40. Jim says:

    The great Divide was a series of retail stores in Michigan which sold UofM and MSU sports merchandise. There is still a store in Flint I believe.

    There used to be multiple locations in the 90s. Knowing where the auther grew up and that some of the songs on the Illinois album in fact took place in Michigan made me think first of the store.

    It is a nice connection with the song even though it likely is not literally what he is referring to.

  41. Jake says:

    Coming from an outside perspective on both America and Christianity my interpretation had been that the characters were older (mid to late teens) and from a conservative church community. I have no idea what Illanoise is like though.

    Seems like he really did his research into the state and that people from there connect stuff in what I suspect is closer to the intended meaning.

  42. Jon says:

    Very interesting take. My one thought is I considered that the father cursed the Navy yard because of a toxin he brought home. Cancer of the Bone is rarely a primary cancer. Usually it metastasizes from other sites (lung, adrenal, thyroid). All rare in kids unless they have been exposed to toxins.

  43. Bob Huskey says:

    I can’t listen to that song without crying. Still, for years since I first heard it.

    I understood the stanzas being stream of consciousness vignettes reflected upon from some time later. The various incidents of young love, nascent and increasing sexuality culminate with sex. She didn’t need the complications of that romance at the time of discovering she had bone cancer. I inferred from his friend’s being scared about the father finding out and the father showing he was sorry, that the father had made a big ruckus about their having sex and regretted that when the relative significance of her death or imminent death was clear.

    I have to accept some of the details as ambiguous. Drove his car into the Navy yard suggests suicide or some sort of demonstrative crash. He used “into” and not “to”. Navy yard may have some specific meaning that eludes me, but it is enough to know the state of the father.

    As to the end, I do not sense reconciliation. God allowed this love to bloom and then took it away in the worst possible way. The innocence of the love mirrored the naivete of the faith. Praying over the body to effect a cure. He Only takes was the final sentiment.

    The effect of the musical aspect of this song was to suggest a certain distance. It is very quiet, not dramatic. A melancholy reflection on this young love cut short but life has marched on for him. The simple minor key introduction and the evocative first line do not prepare me for the devastation of the third line. I can’t breathe for some time after I hear it.

    The power of this quiet song shows the genius of its creator.

  44. Tom M says:

    Really glad I found this. Its a wonderful piecing together of the threads. Only thing I’d like to add is the ‘great divide’. Because to me, it’s the point of the song. To me the great divide is, yes, the movement from this life to what comes next, but, also in the context of the song, the divide from childhood to adult. Losing innocence, etc.

    The loss of a friends life is one major thing that will end that.
    The *almost* touching a blouse.
    The changing from meekly accepting of God, to the questioning of God.
    There’s a series of pointers to me that he’s on the verge of becoming grown up. Then it happens. His friend dies. The great divide, and there’s no going back.

  45. Habib K says:

    Thank you for this! I first heard this song when I was around ten, and it’s impact on me has only grown from there. I’ve made many of my own inferences on it (I even wrote an essay on it a year ago) and it’s always great to see what other people take from it.

  46. Akshay Raheja says:

    Listening to this song, I felt a distinct possibility of images as you rightly pointed out. When you listen to the middle verse you can clearly make up images like a living room where she is kissing, the attention to detail yet not chronology is amazing. The song can also be interpreted as the God taking his believes away as you generally notice in Sufjan’s work; existentialism. Another thing, Casimir Pulaski Day is the best song ever. I am greatful to the artist for making me experience this and to you for writing this interpretation coz this helped “a lot”

  47. Svetlana says:

    I’ m 4 years late in this comment section but ok.. haha. I fell in love with this song while watching the HBO series Big Little Lies, which has a pretty amazing soundtrack. I’ve been listening to it non stop and just needed to have a better understanding of the meaning behind the lyrics. Since English is not my mother tongue (I’m brazilian) I had trouble with some of the idiomatic expressions, and for that and all your interpretation , I’m thankful (:

  48. Eric says:

    Yes please keep this thread going. By far the most emotional song I have heard. The first time I heard this was life changing for me. The heartbreak i get from his sorrow for his first true love, the only time he would ever have that feeling being taken from him, truly changed the way I cheaply wasted my thoughts and actions and made me literally start to love every little moment in life much more.

  49. Tim says:

    This is one of my favorite SS songs, and like many of you, makes me cry every time i hear it, even so many times since the first listen.
    There are many things that i totally agree with you on, but i few that i do not.
    First, I am not sure the girl’s mother is dead. She is not ‘in the picture’ (except the actual photographs). I think maybe the parents are divorced, especially because one line says “at your mother’s house”–distinct from the other home where he sees, visits her? Also, there is something about the father that bothers me (and i have also always felt the “navy yard” was reference to his suicide) but take the next line, “to prove that he was sorry”–for what? possibly the divorce, seperation of the daughter from her mother, or worse. Molestation? The extra line in Sufjan’s demo version really seems to show some hatred to the father, and protectiveness. Pulling his hair and kicking him for her to get away. The father certainly seemed to have guilt associated with her death for him to commit suicide…
    Secondly, I don’t think he is saying that he is agnostic (particularly after her death) but just feels the pain of losing someone (“he takes and takes”) he deeply loves. He sees the face of God in the window, and he acknowledges his own sin (“what we did that night”) and also shows Repentance. And also says that “He took our place” showing his understanding that Christ died for him. The “WHEN i see His face” could be knowing his sin and having to face God at his own death. And he believes that he will see God’s face (Not someone who doesn’t believe God even exists). Just as in John Wayne Gacy a few tracks before this one, he shows that he is realizing his own hidden sins, and that he is a horrible sinner, just like a serial killer. “WHEN i saw his face, in the window could actually be the moment of his realization of his sin, repentance, and salvation.

  50. tim says:

    …also, i find the last line “He takes and takes and takes” so very powerful in that the reference can be simultaneously two-fold. He takes someone away, as in death (a negative) or the loss of of a loved one. But also “He takes” our place, as in His (Christ’s) death (a positive) for giving everlasting life to anyone who believes in him and then is taken away in death. In that, “He takes, and takes and takes” our place every time someone dies.

  51. Jen says:

    I love this (even though it’s very old), I discovered this song years ago when my boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer, and it helped me, and him, get through some really tough emotions. He survived though, but I still felt the words stongly. I really appreciate your analysis, and everyone’s input, it makes the song even more special. But one thing I’ve always assumed, which seems silly now that I’m reading everyone else’s response, was that the ‘cardinal hits the window’ was a reference to a person, a Catholic Cardinal. As in, her parents, nurse, and their religious leader are sitting around her bed, as they know she is dying. The Cardinal is there to help soothe the parents, but he is also crushed by her death, and hits a window in anger. Honestly don’t know where that thought came from, I’m not Catholic and honestly don’t even know what a Cardinal does, but there you go. Did anyone else have that thought??

  52. Ashley says:

    Love the insight, never knew what the Navy yard meant but it’s so clear now.
    For me, the “told me not to follow you” line always meant that the girl didn’t want the narrator to kill themself after she dies. But that’s probably I heard “Follow You Into the Dark? by Death Cab for Cutie before hearing this song, and therefore put the two together. Loved reading this even after all these years

  53. Jon says:

    After many years. I finally figured out that “golden rod” is the mullien plant which is a healing herb

  54. Jordan says:

    Wonderful explanation.

    I’ve listened to this song so many times, and like you mentioned, I feel like I get something new from it each time. It was great to read your phrase by phrase analysis and have words put to all the feelings that this song brings out of the listener.

    Well done Sufjan, and well done Greg (I think that’s who wrote this article).

  55. Andy says:

    My family also refers to this as the “Sad Song”. This is one of those few songs that makes me stop what I am doing anytime I hear it. It has helped me greatly in dealing with the loss of my sister to cancer.
    I like your take on the lyrics.

  56. Christopher Volpe says:

    Wonderful, spot-on, and well-written. It just occurred to me that the father’s driving to the Navy Yard “just to prove that he was sorry” might be a reference to a club Stevens’ playing (just as the Great Divide MIGHT be, as someone else said) – and the father, who sees he’s going to be there, drives (perhaps a significant distance) to get there to apologize to the speaker for obstructing the relationship between him and the girl. Some time has passed and he regrets being overprotective and robbing his daughter of the experience of love…. the song just came up from a playlist on an old iPod … damn allergies making my eyes tear again….

  57. aiko says:

    The three “takes” imply that He has been taking for a very long time and will continue to keep taking.

    He took his friend from him
    He took her life from her
    He took Christ from us

    This always struck me as “This is it, this is life, things get taken away, there’s a reason for it, deal with it. There is suffering and your suffering is bad but others had it worse. All you lost was a friend. She lost her life. And that was bad but it could have been even worse, look at the suffering Christ endured. Take your suffering and be angry but do something positive with it.”

  58. Jonathan says:

    Like some other people here, I think that the characters are around 15-16 years old.

    First, goldenrods are a type of flower native to Illinois, so I think that might be what is meant in the first line (I’ve got no clue what the 4H Stone is, though).

    Second, I think the shirt tucked in, shoes untied lines are referencing them being in a rush. Essentially, they were in such a hurry to get moving that they put their shirt on first, than their pants (accidently tucking in their shirt) and ran out.

    I think specifically the first bit, they probably did have sex. I think that when the father finds out he’s furious and tells the narrator that he needs to get outside that instant and that the father would drive him home, and the girl tells the narrator to stay put, that she would run out and deal with her dad.

    Other than that, great write-up!

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