Writing On the Steps of Old Main

October 27, 2011

Sam Brownson '12 and classmates perform at Homecoming Convocation

By Christopher Poore '14

At first glance, musician Sam Brownson '12 may seem to be a shy personality. Standing at a modest height, his eyes often look downwards when he speaks, his quiet voice answering questions elaborately, letting his speech loop in on itself until it achieves a kind of implicit, associative logic. It can be a surprise, then, to see Brownson perform. His eyes close while his voice shoots straight through a crowd -- calm, potent, and sure of itself, maintaining a crystalline soar that has learned something from the Galesburg winter. Which is to say, it chills.

His performance at Homecoming Convocation on October 15 is a perfect example. Joined by Harrison Graham '13, Nathaniel Beck '13 and Oliver Horton '12, Brownson delivered an ovation-earning performance of his song "On the Steps of Old Main," a song that gestated during the scorch of this last summer when Brownson found himself living in Galesburg, walking through a mostly abandoned campus, and visiting the birthplace of a dead poet. Brownson chose to stay in Galesburg with two goals in mind: to make money and to make music.

"I actually worked casual labor," said Brownson, "which was interesting because I talked to a lot of custodians. I talked to Dave Smith (general maintenance worker), and a bunch of these guys who have worked this job all their life. I originally wrote the song with them in mind."

In his free time, Brownson listened to recordings of Carl Sandburg's poems and flipped through Sandburg biographies, where he ran across the name "Sharley," a nickname given to the prairie poet by his wife Lillian. Brownson liked the intimacy of the name, and before long, it was the first word in "On the Steps of Old Main."

"I guess I wanted it to be an informal song," said Brownson. "I wanted it to be a song that was accessible. And referring to him as ‘Carl Sandburg' would be referring to the legend that is Carl Sandburg, not the real personal Sandburg that I felt like was in his poetry."

As Brownson wrote the rest of the song, he knew it needed "to reflect both the past and the future of Knox, pointing out how Knox is bolstered on all this history, but because of that, has a lot to contribute to the future."

Speaking of the future, it's difficult to predict what the Knox music scene will look like in coming years without first thinking of Brownson. During his time at Knox, he's founded the Songwriter's Guild, where artists come together to critique and workshop each other's music. Brownson's band, Poets & Peasants, is quickly becoming a favorite of the student community, and come winter term, he'll be designing inter-scene music for Theatre Professor Liz Carlin-Metz's production of Twelfth Night.

Yet if Knox sounds better because of Brownson, he attributes much of his success to the collaborative community here on campus.

"The choir and the jazz combos, jazz night -- I get to play with a lot of great musicians here," Brownson said. "I knew my education wasn't going to be run of the mill. It was going to be juggling a lot of different interests because that's just the kind of person I am."