Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On “Casimir Pulaski Day,” Sufjan Stevens remembers

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, we’re talking about songs with holidays in their names.

Sufjan Stevens, “Casimir Pulaski Day” (2005)

Because The Onion is a horrible corporate overlord that literally chains us to our desks and uses a cat-o’-nine-tails to encourage us to “whip” up content (kidding, OSHA!), the staff of The A.V. Club doesn’t get Casimir Pulaski Day off. That’s a shame, since it’s a Chicago institution. Observed in Illinois on the first Monday of March every year, the holiday ostensibly honors Polish-born Revolutionary War cavalry officer Casimir Pulaski, though for most school kids with a four-day week, it’s probably just another sweet, sweet sleep-in day. More than anything, really, it’s a tribute to Chicago’s strong-arm politics and sizable Polish immigrant population, neither of which can really be underestimated.

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Because Pulaski Day is such a Chicago institution, it’s popped up in several places across pop culture, including in songs by both Big Black and Andrew Bird. The best (and best-known) Pulaski Day tribute comes from one-time Chicagoan Sufjan Stevens. On his album Illinois, Stevens used “Casimir Pulaski Day” to remember both the holiday and his friend, who’d been battling bone cancer. With lines like, “In the morning / In the winter shade / On the first of March / On the holiday / I thought I saw you breathing,” Stevens manages to make the somewhat boisterous but potentially icy holiday lushly reverent, something that’s not all that surprising knowing both Stevens’ history and the track’s tone. Though Stevens repeatedly extols “all the glory that the Lord has made,” he ends the song instead possibly questioning God’s intentions, especially after his friend’s death on the track’s titular holiday. Though part of life is death, Stevens still struggles with God when, as he puts it, “He takes and he takes and he takes.” Listeners feel his pain acutely, especially as the song slides into Illinois’ next track, the instrumental, “To The Workers Of The Rock River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament.” Like the holiday itself, “Casimir Pulaski Day” is about remembrance—even if, years later, we might not even be sure what we’re paying tribute to anymore.

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