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Thursday, Aug. 7, 2003 02:20 pm

Dead men talking

Musician Richard Buckner found his voice after an encounter with Edgar Lee Masters


Take Oakland Avenue south out of Petersburg, past the park and the water tower, then down into the valley, where cattle graze on the tender new grass along the creek bottom. Go up a hill on the far side, and there sits Oakland Cemetery, where the old souls of Spoon River Anthology are said to reside. Many of the family names from the poems can be found on the tilting stones, and in the shade of a lone Catalpa tree lays the grave of the author, Edgar Lee Masters. The hill leading to Oakland may be the hill referred to in the book's first poem:

"All, all are sleeping on the hill."

A quiet walk through any cemetery, reading the names and dates on passing stones, is enough to remind us of our own mortality. It's easy to imagine a wealth of stories rising up from the small clues: the proximity of a child's grave to a parent's, a young man fallen during a time of war, the ancient married pair who died so close together in time (or so far apart). We speak for the dead out of our own experiences.

Edgar Lee Masters's greatest work is a contemplation of lives spoken with a candor only the dead can afford. Most of the poems are based on people Masters knew growing up in Petersburg and Lewiston in the 1880s. Set in the fictional town of Spoon River, these verses are naturally dramatic and have been performed in theaters from New Salem to New York.

But in spite of the millions who have been affected by Spoon River Anthology since it was published in 1915, singer-songwriter Richard Buckner had never heard of the book when he found it in the stacks of a San Francisco bookstore in 1989. "I wasn't really aware of Masters then," Buckner says. "I was a stock boy, and while I was shelving books I opened it up and was immediately grabbed by it. What drew me initially was that I opened the index and there was a list of names. I'd been doing the same thing in this little hotel room I was living in: I had a list of names, and I would write a one-line description about each name. So I open this book, written a long time ago, and there's a list of names. I started reading and I got really involved in it. It was a strange coincidence."

Five years later, Buckner was stuck in a forlorn motel in the Arizona desert, with little to do for comfort aside from playing his guitar. "It was 20 minutes to the nearest restaurant," he recalls. "I was at a point in my life where nothing was happening. I was not happy with anything I was writing and seemed unable to make anything work. I had a copy of Spoon River with me. I went out one night and the local high school was staging a production of the Anthology. It was weird. I thought that since I couldn't write, I would see if I could approach the music based on the poems." The shape of Buckner's CD The Hill began to emerge as he rendered Masters' work in song.

"The whole thing started accidentally, so I let it happen on its own," says Buckner. "You'd have three or four characters all intertwined into something." The interplay of narratives among characters is one of the more compelling devices of both the book and the album. Tom Merritt's story, for example, is amplified by that of his wife, whose 19-year-old lover was his killer. The narrative of the pious A.D. Blood precedes that of the drunk Oscar Hummel, whom Blood brutally murders when Hummel stumbles into his front yard. Each story resonates with surprise and complexity, like ripples in a pond. "That's what I love about the book."

As in the book, sequence is important. "When you read about certain characters in other people's poems, you want to go back and see what that person was about--why that person was reacting to them that way," Buckner says.

Of the 18 poems Buckner chose for The Hill, half take their lyrics from Masters; the other songs are instrumentals. "That's my dream: to have people actually read the poems that are the instrumentals and think about how they go with the songs," Buckner says.

"A lot of the music was played as it was being written. There are some things that were only played once. I had to relearn them to take them on tour. There was a lot of four-in-the-morning madness going on. It was just me, focusing as hard as I could for hours at a time."

Buckner has recently released Impasse, his first album since The Hill,which was recorded in 2000. But hisexperience with Spoon River Anthology has stuck with him. He credits Masters for improving his songwriting. "The Hill was really good for me," Buckner says. "I was having a problem. . . . I was a lot more concerned with melodies and arrangements--that was more intriguing to me than writing the words. I was writing a lot, but somehow the two weren't coming together. So I turned my attention to Spoon River and somehow it really opened me up again, so I could get back to my own songs and construct them from a different angle."

Buckner's music might give careful listeners new insight into a local master.

Richard Buckner performs at 8 tonight, Thursday, August 7, in the Underground City Tavern at the Hilton Springfield, Seventh and Adams. Call 789-1530 for more information.

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