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‘Passing Through’ (1948): Song of Political Engagement

In the late 1940s, Dick Blakeslee, then a student at the University of Chicago, wrote Passing Through, an exceedingly simple, hopeful and politically committed song. The lyrics breathed the heady atmosphere of political liberalism and optimism that followed Allied victory in World War II and preceded the McCarthy era and Cold War freeze. In 1948, a hundred flowers bloomed and Passing Through epitomized this:
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I saw Jesus on the cross on a hill called Calvary
“Do you hate mankind for what they done to you?”
He said, “Talk of love not hate, things to do – it’s getting late.
I’ve so little time and I’m only passing through.”

Passing through, passing through.
Sometimes happy, sometimes blue,
glad that I ran into you.
Tell the people that you saw me passing through.

I saw Adam leave the Garden with an apple in his hand,
I said “Now you’re out, what are you going to do?”
“Plant some crops and pray for rain, maybe raise a little cane.
I’m an orphan now, and I’m only passing through.”

I was with Washington at Valley Forge, shivering in the snow.
I said, “How come the men here suffer like they do?”
“Men will suffer, men will fight, even die for what is right
even though they know they’re only passing through”

I was with Franklin Roosevelt’s side on the night before he died.
He said, “One world must come out of World War Two” (ah, the fool)
“Yankee, Russian, white or tan,” he said, “A man is still a man.
We’re all on one road, and we’re only passing through.”

“I rode with old Abe Lincoln on that train to Gettysburg
I said: “What are we gonna do?”
He said: “All men must be unconditonally free
Or there is no reason to be passing through.”

–lyrics from LeonardCohenSite.com

Cisco Huston recorded Passing Through (hear it) and it appears on Cisco Houston-The Folkways Years. CiscoHouston.com is a great resource both for more about this album and Cisco Houston’s musical career in general.
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I first heard Passing Through (hear it) when Leonard Cohen recorded it around 1973 for his Essential Leonard Cohen. I loved the jauntiness and good humor which he inferred into the lyrics of a deeply political and spiritual song. Though for some reason he omitted Blakeslee’s closing verse about Abe Lincoln. Perhaps it was too overtly political or Cohen didn’t like the reference to “man” being unconditionally free?
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Miraculously, Ron Cohen and Dave Samuelson have collected Blakeslee’s original recording of the song on Songs for Political Action a massive 10-CD collection of politically engaged songs from the 1930s to 1950s.

Blakeslee himself became an English professor at various colleges and passed away in 2000. The University of Chicago Magazine carried a short obituary:

Richard C. Blakeslee, AB’43, AM’46, a professor emeritus of English, died April 7, 2000, in Santa Barbara, CA. He was 78. Blakeslee taught at Northwestern University, Wisconsin State College, and San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University), where he remained until his 1992 retirement. He was the author of the folk song “Passing Through.” Survivors include his wife, Pat; three daughters; a son; and nine grandchildren.

He was a good man who appears to have lived a righteous life.

Please Note: This mp3 blog showcases my love for traditional music. I hope you come, listen, enjoy, and follow the links to buy the music. Such good deeds reward the artists I feature here and allow me to cover a small portion of the expense involved in maintaining this blog.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sarah Blakeslee October 10, 2004, 8:39 AM

    Hi, Richard Blakeslee is my Dad so of course I grew up with Passing Through and loved to watch its recording history. Just to set the record straight, the Abraham Lincoln verse was not written by my Dad, which may explain why it wasn’t on the Leonard Cohen version. Also, the version my Dad wrote had “Men will suffer men will fight, die for what they think is right”, not die for what is right. An important distinction and a change in the lyrics that bothered my Dad because of course it makes no sense to think there is always one “right” when it comes to war.

    • Jugurtha Harchaoui March 28, 2010, 5:13 AM

      Dear Sarah Blakeslee:

      I am a small, independent book-publisher based in Paris, France.

      As part of a book, I wish to publish your dad’s lyric Passing Through as it appeared originally. [I have just purchased 1953's Lift Every Voice, and I see that even there the lyric is incorrectly reproduced.] For that purpose, I am ready to properly acquire the permission to reproduce the song’s lyric.

      To accomplish this, I am afraid I might need your help. First, because I cannot seem to locate a faithful reproduction of the initial lyric. Second, because I do not know which music-publishing entity administers the copyright associated with the Passing Through song.

      In short, I would be honored to benefit from your help in this endeavor. Conversely, without your help, I doubt I will manage to pull it off.

      Thank you very in advance for your kind response.

      Yours Respectfully,
      Jugurtha

      jugurtha@la-danaide.com

    • Malcolm Searles November 25, 2012, 3:24 AM

      Sarah
      Sorry for this contact out of the blue but I am trying to locate your brother, also named Richard, for information on a project he worked on at Cal State back in the late 1960’s. Can you assist at all ?
      Regards

  • Richard Silverstein October 10, 2004, 8:49 PM

    Sarah: I am very touched that you commented on my post. Thanks for doing so. As you know, your dad provided the world with a great gift when he wrote “Passing Through.”

    One of the things I was most concerned of in writing this post was that I knew almost nothing about your father. Someone wrote me with the link to his obit in the UofC alumni mag. This provided some biolgraphical material. But if there’s anything else relevant to my post about your dad which you’d like me to add–or some place online that has such information–pls. let me know.

    Do you know how the Lincoln verse came into existence? I like it, though it definitely has a different lyric character than the other verses he DID write..

    Yes, that lyric change about what is “right” does make the verse quite different & I understand why your dad was so concerned about it (especially in light of the certitude our current pres. shows about all issues he views as “right”).

  • Me April 8, 2007, 8:06 AM

    It is Valley Forge not Valley Ford!

  • Richard Silverstein April 8, 2007, 2:10 PM

    Of course it is! Thanks for correcting the typo.

  • Paul Danish July 10, 2009, 10:49 AM

    Passing through had at least one more verse, which seems to have gone down the memory hole. It referred to an incident during World War II, when a troop transport, the Dorchester was sunk by a German submariine:

    I was aboard the Dorchester
    The night that she went down
    And four chaplains gave their life-belts to the crew.
    Arm in arm on bended knee
    They prayed for you and me
    We’re all brothers and we’re only passing through.

    The act was one of great gallantry; the chaplains — Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish, if memory serves — went down with the ship.

    They were subsequently memorialized with a commemorative stamp.

    I first heard the verse in the 1950s when the song was sung by a folk singer who visited my high school. It is a shame it has been lost.

    • Jugurtha December 8, 2009, 9:24 AM

      Can someone please tell me in which year Cisco Houston recorded Passing Through for Folkways Records? Thank you very much in advance!

  • Chris Danielsen December 30, 2009, 1:41 PM

    This song was also recorded by the folk group The Highwaymen and friends on their album ‘Hootenanny with the Highwaymen.” This was a folk group of the early 1960’s, most famous for their version of “Michael (Row the Boat Ashore),” not the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson/Johnny Cash/Kris Kristofferson collaboration. Their version contains the incorrect lyric “die for what is right.” You can find the album on-line but not on CD.

  • Jack Radcliffe April 17, 2010, 7:19 AM

    One of our artists, Jim McGrath, has recorded a version of Passing Through with additional lyrics. We would like to arrange for proper mechanical rights as well as identify the publisher for the original. Can anyone here help?

    Thanks!

  • Jugurtha Harchaoui April 18, 2010, 3:59 AM

    dear jack: please send me an e-mail at support@la-danaide.com – best, j.

  • Jeffrey H. Teitel May 14, 2012, 7:34 PM

    Back in `66, I heard singer and guitarist, Betsy Bick sing,
    “I heard Ghandi speak one night, I said man we`ve got to fight,
    He said love is the weapon we must use,
    It is love that we must choose so none will ever lose,
    Were all brothers, and were only passing through.”

  • Lindianne September 15, 2013, 11:53 PM

    Kathy Sindin and I used to sing Passing Through in the sixties at Clarkstown Junior High.

    Recently I recalled it and started singing it again. It is a great song and I will be using it as the theme song for The Freedom Show. Thanks for researching this great song and posting the songwriter and other Passing Through lore.

    • Richard Silverstein September 16, 2013, 2:26 AM

      So much I didn’t know about Kathy Sindin. Perhaps so much we didn’t know about each other. High school was a pretty atomizing experience. Nor did I know this song then. Not till Leonard Cohen recorded it.

      I haven’t had any contact with anyone from Clarkstown HS for years. How are you?

  • Musica Romantica February 26, 2014, 5:23 PM

    i like this part:
    I saw Adam leave the Garden with an apple in his hand,
    I said “Now you’re out, what are you going to do?”
    “Plant some crops and pray for rain, maybe raise a little cane.
    I’m an orphan now, and I’m only passing through.”
    good post Thanks

  • George Aronson March 30, 2014, 7:45 AM

    I remember the song from campfire sing-alongs in the 1960s. With the years passing, much has happened and the song still sings so well! But the FDR verse never sounded like FDR, and the world of campfire song has moved away from gender-specific language. So here are some verses that weren’t posted above that reflect those thoughts.

    I was at Franklin Roosevelt’s side just a awhile before he died
    He said “Freedom must come out of World War II
    Free for speech and free for prayer. Free from want and free from fear.
    We need freedom for we’re only passing through”

    Gandhi spoke to me one night, he said “Yes, we have to fight,
    but love and trust are the weapons we must use
    Trust in your humanity, be the world you want to see
    Walk together for we’re only passing through”

    I was with Nelson Mandela in his Robben Island cell
    How do you not hate them for what they’ve done to you?
    He said “If you want the hate to end, make your enemy your friend
    We’ve so little time and we’re just passing through.”

  • George Aronson March 30, 2014, 7:48 AM

    And here’s another verse I’ve heard from a Jewish socialist summer camp

    I stood on Herzl’s balcony with Basel there below
    “Do you think your vision ever will come true?”
    “If we only have the will, every dream we can fulfill
    We’re all dreamers and we’re only passing through.”

  • david kaufman May 21, 2014, 3:41 PM

    I think that the line in Adam leaving the garden should be spelled ‘maybe raise a little Cain’, which would refer both to his son and to the idea of raising Hell thereby being a pun.

  • George Aronson May 22, 2014, 3:06 AM

    Another verse I have heard

    I sat to chat with Jefferson as he sat down to write
    “Tell me which rights are self-evident to you?”
    “Life and liberty, I guess, and pursuit of happiness
    We’ve so little time and we’re just passing through”

    And another take on the Lincoln verse

    I was speakin’ with Abe Lincoln on the train to Gettysburg
    “How do we heal a nation torn in two?”
    “Show no malice when they fall
    Just have charity to all
    we’re all brothers and we’re only passing through”