Themes and References in Joanna Newsom’s Sapokanikan

Yesterday Joanna Newsom announced Divers, her fourth studio album and her first since 2010’s beautiful and generous Have One on Me. Divers is due out on 23 October on Drag City. Accompanying this revelation, she also unveiled the video for the album’s first single. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, ‘Sapokanikan’ shows Newsom strolling, striding, and sashaying through the streets of New York City.

‘Sapokanikan’ is a place name, used by the Lenape Native American tribe for a small seasonal village and trading post which they inhabited on Manhattan Island, on the east bank of the Hudson River. There until the early 1600s, the Lenape – also known as the Delaware Indians – would hunt and fish and trade with other tribes and early European settlers. The Lenape spoke the Unami language, and the name ‘Manhattan’ comes from the Unami ‘Manna-hata’, which has been translated as ‘island of many hills’. The footpath which the Lenape used to travel inland from Sapokanikan served as the basis for today’s Gansevoort Street, in New York City’s Meatpacking District.

Joanna Newsom’s new song is typically lyrically dense: in everything from its tail rhymes, internal rhymes, and alliteration; to its varying stanzas; to its use of novel compounds; to the broad array of its references. The song in short offers a challenging history of a specific area of New York City, asserting and attempting to reconcile the city’s long development with the peoples and places removed, excised, and forgotten along the way.

‘Sapokanikan’, by Joanna Newsom

The cause is Ozymandian
The map of Sapokanikan
Is sanded and bevelled
The land lone and levelled
By some unrecorded and powerful hand

Which plays along the monument
And drums upon a plastic bag
The brave-men-and-women-so-dear-to-God-
And-famous-to-all-of-the-ages rag

‘Do you love me?
Will you remember?
The snow falls above me
The renderer renders
The event is in the hand of God’

Beneath a patch of grass, her
Bones the old Dutch master hid
While elsewhere Tobias
And the angel disguise
What the scholars surmise was a mother and kid

Interred with other daughters
In dirt in other potter’s fields
Above them, parades
Mark the passing of days
Through parks where pale colonnades arch in marble and steel

Where all of the twenty-thousand attending your footfall
And the cause that they died for are lost in the idling bird calls
And the records they left are cryptic at best
Lost in obsolescence
The text will not yield, nor X-ray reveal
With any fluorescence
Where the hand of the master begins and ends

I fell, I tried to do well but I won’t be
Will you tell the one that I love to remember and hold me
I call and call for the doctor
But the snow swallows me whole with old Florry Walker
And the event lives only in print

He said:
‘It’s alright’
And ‘It’s all over now’
And boarded the plane
His belt unfastened
The boy was known to show unusual daring
And, called a boy
This alderman, confounding Tammany Hall
In whose employ King Tamanend himself preceded John’s fall

So we all raise a standard
To which the wise and honest soul may repair
To which a hunter
A hundred years from now, may look and despair
And see with wonder
The tributes we have left to rust in the parks
Swearing that our hair stood on end
To see John Purroy Mitchel depart
For the Western front where work might count
O mercy! O God! Go out!
Await the hunter to decipher the stone
And what lies under now, the city is gone

Look and despair
Look and despair

* * *

In antiquity, ‘Ozymandias’ was a Greek name for Ramesses II, the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt, and often regarded as the greatest pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire owing to the series of campaigns he undertook in the Levant, including across the extent of modern-day Syria. The name is best known however as the title of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s most recognised and most anthologised poem. ‘Ozymandias’ was first published on 11 January 1818, in the London weekly The Examiner.

A few months earlier, the British Museum had announced the acquisition of a large, 7.25 tonne fragment of a statue of Ramesses II. Dating from the thirteenth century BC, it shows the pharaoh’s head, and continues to be one of the British Museum’s most significant works of Egyptian sculpture. While the statue wouldn’t arrive at the museum until 1821, this initial announcement is taken to have inspired Shelley’s poem.

Statue of Ramesses II, the ‘Younger Memnon’, acquired by the British Museum in 1817, and thought to have inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’.

Shelley wrote it over the Christmas period as a sonnet, in competition with his close friend, the poet and stockbroker Horace Smith. Smith’s sonnet on the subject, under the same title, appeared in The Examiner a few weeks after Shelley’s. Both poems explore the transitory nature of power and the ravages of time: depicting a fragment of a statue half-buried amid an expanse of desert, which is all that remains to obliquely recall a once-mighty ruler. While Smith’s sonnet conjures a now-forgotten civilisation, and makes an explicit connection to contemporary London, Shelley’s instead contrasts the faded power of a king with the enduring characteristics of art.

‘Ozymandias’, by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1818)

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

‘Ozymandias’ by Horace Smith (1818)

In Egypt’s sandy silence, all alone,
Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws
The only shadow that the Desert knows:—
“I am great OZYMANDIAS,” saith the stone,
“The King of Kings; this mighty City shows
“The wonders of my hand.”— The City’s gone,—
Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose
The site of this forgotten Babylon.

We wonder,—and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place

Incorporating phrases from both poems into her song, Joanna Newsom makes something of the same gesture as the sonnets themselves: she briefly revitalises Smith’s comparatively remote and abandoned work, and restores it to a position of equality with Shelley’s. While Shelley’s poem kept its original title across subsequent collections, sometimes with ‘Sonnet’ attached, in the face of his friend’s more popular piece, Smith changed his own title to the elaborately informative – but hardly catchy – ‘On A Stupendous Leg of Granite, Discovered Standing by Itself in the Deserts of Egypt, with the Inscription Inserted Below’. In fact it is Smith’s notion of a ‘powerful but unrecorded race’ which thematically connects the various facets of Newsom’s composition.

* * *

Gansevoort Street is at the northwestern edge of Greenwich Village. After the Dutch, orchestrated by Peter Minuit, bought Manhattan Island in 1626, the Lenape were driven from Sapokanikan, and the area which comprises Greenwich Village today became used by the Dutch primarily as farm land. Tobacco grew especially well here, which has led to speculation that ‘Sapokanikan’ itself means ‘tobacco field’ or ‘wild tobacco‘.

Longhouses in the Lenape village of Sapokanikan, as it looked around the early 1620s before the land was taken over by the Dutch.

Some of the area was also given over to freed African slaves, who were used as a sort of buffer between the Dutch and Native American tribes further afield. When the Dutch surrendered to the English in 1664, New Amsterdam was renamed New York. However Greenwich Village remained outside the boundary of the fledgling city, and from 1797 until 1829, it was the site of New York State’s first prison.

At the same time Washington Square Park, now at the heart of Greenwich Village, became a ‘potter’s field’, or burial ground. As New York experienced yellow fever epidemics and cholera outbreaks through the first decades of the 1800s, many of those who succumbed in the city were buried at this potter’s field. The site was closed in 1825, and subsequently Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park were incorporated as part of New York City. The burial ground was levelled, and turned first into a parade ground, then into a park by 1871. But to this day, it is thought that as many as 20,000 bodies still lie underneath Washington Square Park.

Thus Joanna Newsom progresses from a ‘map of Sapokanikan’ and a ‘land lone and levelled’ to a sense, in the same space, of the similarly erased dead ‘interred’ in ‘potter’s fields’: the ‘twenty-thousand attending your footfall / And the causes they died for are lost in the idling bird calls / And the records they left are cryptic at best / Lost in obsolescence’. She suggests along the way Washington Square Park’s past and present: its ‘monument’ and ‘drums’ – singing these lines in her video as she gets up from her seat in the park as it stands today – and its ‘parades’ and ‘pale colonnades’ which ‘arch in marble and steel’. In the process, she reconstitutes the history of New York City.

Washington Arch
Washington Square Arch, the marble triumphal arch built in Washington Square Park in 1892 to mark the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration as US President. It bears the inscription ‘Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God.’ – words from a speech Washington gave at the opening of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

* * *

Beyond the framing allusion to ‘Ozymandias’, the Lenape, and the burial grounds utilised and then covered by an expanding city, another frame of reference now emerges in ‘Sapokanikan’. First there is a communal plea, ‘Will you remember?’, drawn from the signature song of the 1917 Broadway musical Maytime, with lyrics by Rida Johnson Young. Maytime was adapted for film in 1923, in a version thought lost until it was rediscovered in 2009 in the New Zealand Film Archive. Then Joanna Newsom narrows her focus, recalling ‘Beneath a patch of grass, her / Bones the old Dutch master hid’. While this doubles back upon the Dutch takeover of Lenape Sapokanikan, ‘patch of grass’ is an acute reference to a painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Painted by Van Gogh in Paris in 1887, Patch of Grass was analysed in 2008 by researchers at the Delft University of Technology. Using an innovative X-ray technique, they discovered underneath Van Gogh’s composition an earlier portrait of a Dutch peasant – presumably painted in Nuenen sometime between 1884 and 1885, in the months preceding The Potato Eaters. Van Gogh, always short of money and relying on his brother Theo for supplies, is estimated to have painted over around a third of his canvases.

A composite image showing the hidden portrait of a Dutch peasant woman discovered in 2008 under Patch of Grass by Vincent van Gogh (1887).

In the same vein but clearer still, the lines on ‘Tobias and the Angel’ disguising ‘What the scholars surmise was a mother and kid’ refer to a long-disputed canvas by Titian. A painting depicting the Biblical scene – from the deuterocanonical Book of Tobit 5:5-6 – and known as Tobias and the Angel was still being hesitantly attributed to Titian when purchased by Tsar Nicholas I in 1850. However within a few years the Tsar had auctioned the work off, advised by his experts that it was of a low standard and probably inauthentic.

In the twentieth century, it failed to find a buyer at several auctions; until in 1983, its owner Alec Cobbe elected to undertake extensive and risky restoration work. This wasn’t completed until 1999, but it revealed an original canvas by Titian, of a woman and daughter, which had subsequently been painted over by one of his pupils to resemble instead Tobias and an angel, replete with giant fish.

Today the restored canvas is known as Titian’s Portrait of a Lady and Her Daughter. As the painting was left unfinished by Titian, and therefore presumably not commissioned, it is thought that it may depict members of his close family, perhaps his daughter and her child. Whatever, hailing the restoration work, Professor Peter Humfrey of St Andrew’s University, an expert in Venetian painting, asserted the value of such humble subjects in Titian’s catalogue: ‘Excepting the erotic pictures, there are no other portraits by Titian of Venetian patrician women, and certainly no other of a mother and child’.

Titian Portrait Lady
Three images showing the restoration of Titian’s Portrait of a Lady and Her Daughter. The painting had previously been known as Tobias and the Angel, considered a depiction of the Biblical scene from the Book of Tobit 5:5-6.

In both of these cases, the masking of an earlier composition by subsequent layers of paint meant the prolonged – although not final – concealment of human subjects. Incidentally or otherwise, in both cases the concealed subjects were also female. The Titian painting offers more complex readings, given that the concealer was not the original artist; and because it involved an attempt to heighten the value of a work by asserting religious symbolism above the human form.

Within the context of US history, and with lines in ‘Sapokanikan’ also remarking on ‘some unrecorded and powerful hand’, ‘the hand of the master’, and more explicitly ‘the hand of God’ – as well as the later suggestion of a ‘Western front where work might count’ – this religious aspect invokes and questions the concept of Manifest Destiny. This was the belief, popular throughout the nineteenth century, that American settlers were divinely destined to expand throughout the west of the continent, spreading their beliefs and implementing their own uses of the land. While never uniformly embraced, Manifest Destiny was part of the rationale which led to the policy of forced Indian removal.

Finally, ‘Sapokanikan’ mentions Florry Walker, the unrequited love of Australian impressionist Arthur Streeton. Working for over a year from 2006 to restore Streeton’s 1889 painting Spring, the conservator Michael Varcoe-Cocks discovered that Streeton had scratched the name ‘Florry Walker’ three times into the paint. Going back over the canvas, he also found the inscriptions ‘Florry is my sweetheart’ and ‘Florry/Smike’. An X-ray of Spring additionally revealed a portrayal of a nude female bather, painted out and replaced by males, but presumed to be a depiction of Florry. While Streeton’s infatuation with Walker, however brief, seems clear, any correspondence between the two youngsters is thought to be either missing or burned.

An X-ray showing the painted-out female nude in Arthur Streeton’s canvas Spring (1889), presumed to be a depiction of Florry Walker.

* * *

Joanna Newsom moves on to the early decades of the twentieth century in New York City in ‘Sapokanikan’, by centring upon the life of John Purroy Mitchel. Mitchel began his career in New York politics in late 1906, and in 1909 was elected president of the Board of Alderman. Quickly developing a reputation as a progressive reformer, he consolidated behind him those in opposition to Tammany Hall.

Tammany Hall, founded in 1786, had by the turn of the twentieth century asserted a firm grip over New York City politics. It began life as one of several Tammany societies whose origins were in Philadelphia, and who were named after the Lenape chief Tamanend. As Hugh Brogan writes in The Penguin History of the USA:

‘Tammany was a Delaware chieftain who, traditionally, was among those who welcomed William Penn to America in 1682. During the eighteenth century the memory of this friendly Indian was kept green and he was posthumously endowed wih the combined powers of Hercules, Aesculapius and Alfred the Great. During the Revolution ‘t Tammany’ societies were founded in opposition to the pro-British societies of St Goerge. Tammany became the chosen patron saint of the Revolutionary army.’

From 1854 through until the first decades of the 1900s, Tammany Hall effectively controlled Democratic Party nominations in New York, increasingly advancing the position of the city’s Irish Catholics. Though the organisation sought the support of immigrants and some of society’s lower classes, it also became renowned for corruption. Standing as a Republican candidate against the Tammany Hall machine, in 1914 John Purroy Mitchel was elected to become the mayor of New York City. Only thirty-four years old at the time, he became the second-youngest mayor of the city, and was dubbed ‘The Boy Mayor of New York’. 

Fighting his second election campaign in wartime, in 1917 Mitchel failed to win re-election. He joined the US Air Service, but on the morning of 6 July 1918 his plane went into a nose dive near Louisiana, and with his seatbelt unfastened, he fell 500 feet to his death. His body was returned to New York City for burial.

Memorial in Central Park to John Purroy Mitchel, ‘The Boy Mayor of New York’. Mitchel left office at the end of 1917, and after joining the US Air Service, died the following July when he fell from his plane near Louisiana.

As ‘Sapokanikan’ propels to a close, Joanna Newsom entwines phrases from Shelley and Smith’s sonnets with images of memorial, tributes ‘left to rust in the parks’, and the moment of John Purroy Mitchel’s departure to go west. Shelley’s gaze of ‘despair’ and Smith’s hunter years hence come together, and the suggestion is that for New York City, the moment of departure has already occurred, its history one of repeated departures covered up and never fully witnessed: ‘Go out! / Await the hunter to decipher the stone / And what lies under now, the city is gone / Look and despair / Look and despair’.

‘Sapokanikan’ doesn’t quite share the fatalism of Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’, but nor is it strictly a civil rights song, or a disavowal of the present in the name of a rightful past. Repeatedly enacting departure, it wonders at the nature of change and our inability to coexist; yet despite a note of warning, it is not overly solemn, with a lively social and historical consciousness, and a formal lightness in its fluttering and swelling, in the patterns of Newsom’s voice and the twinkling of the glockenspiel. There are connections within the body of Newsom’s work: Ys too dwelt on the submerged city, and far from being entombed by the song, Greenwich Village and New York beyond are sustained by ‘Sapokanikan’, their burials made bare and invoked as a process of restoration and recovery.

See the comments below for a discussion of ‘Sapokanikan’ in relation to both the 1917 Broadway musical Maytime, with lyrics by Rida Johnson Young, and the 1923 film adaptation, thought lost until it was rediscovered in 2009 in the New Zealand Film Archive. And there is a debate too centred around Newsom’s use of the New York Tribune account of John Purroy Mitchel’s death, which considers her sense of a ‘Western front’.


  • I was wondering about the lines “Sang: ‘Do you love me? / Will you remember?'”. I am no expert, but perhaps they are a reference to the popular 1917 Broadway musical _Maytime_. According to Wikipedia, the play is set in New York City (and specifically Washington Square) over the course of several decades. The unrequited love in that story might also be reflected in the story of Arthur Streeton and Florry Walker in that each “couple” was divided by different financial prospects (at least).

    The original run of this play and the death of Mitchel are also about one hundred years after the composition of the poems by Shelley and Smith. The play and the accident were also almost one hundred years before our time.

    • Thanks so much for this. As you identify, ‘Sapokanikan’ certainly does appear to reference the 1917 Broadway musical Maytime. Aside from the relevant time frame, the theme of unconsummated love, and its being set predominantly in Washington Square, I’ve just had a look at the lyrics to its signature song, ‘Will You Remember?’. Written by Rida Johnson Young, they contain the lines ‘Will you love me ever? / Will you remember this day’, which are close to ‘Sang: Do you love me? / Will you remember?’ from ‘Sapokanikan’.

      Newsom’s next line is ‘The snow falls above me’, while later she sings ‘But the snow swallows me whole with old Florry Walker’. ‘Will You Remember?’ also plays upon the idea of fading memory against the onset of winter. The song’s opening lines read:

      ‘Ah, love is so sweet in the spring-time,
      When two hearts are singing in May.
      No years that are coming can bring time,
      To make me forget, dear, this day.
      I’ll love you in life’s gray December
      The same as I love you to-day.’

      More still, the Wikipedia article notes that Maytime was ‘adapted to film twice, in 1923 and again in 1937. The earlier version was thought to have been lost, but was found in 2009 in the New Zealand Film Archive and is undergoing restoration’. An article about the recovery of the 1923 film alongside many others – including an important early work by John Ford – appeared in 2010 in The New York Times, in a piece by Dave Kehr titled ‘Long-Lost Silent Films Return to America’. One paragraph states:

      ‘Among the discoveries are several films that underline the major contribution made by women to early cinema. “The Girl Stage Driver” (1914) belongs to a large subgenre that Mr. Abel has identified as “cowboy girl” pictures; “The Woman Hater” (1910) is an early vehicle for the serial queen Pearl White; and “Won in a Cupboard” (1914) is the earliest surviving film directed by Normand, the leading female star of Mack Sennett’s Keystone comedies. The Clara Bow film “Maytime” (1923), presents the most famous flapper of the 1920s in an unusual costume role.’

      So we have Washington Square between 1840 and the early 1900s, unrequited love, echoed lines and a shared identification between faltering memory and winter, the recovery of something lost and forgotten, and more a recovery which in several ways reasserts the valuable contributions of women. Maytime is relevant to ‘Sapokanikan’ in a whole host of ways! A really great find.

  • Great analysis of the lyrics. I just have a thought regarding the lines:

    “Swearing that our hair stood on end
    To see John Purroy Mitchel depart
    For the Western front where work might count
    O mercy! O God! Go out!”

    I believe that she is referring not to “Manifest Destiny” and the Westward expansion of the United States, but rather the Western Front of World War I, which was to where J.P. Mitchell was departing. Thus, the place where “our work might count”

    • I think both. Explicitly I agree ‘Western front’ indicates the theatre of World War I. But I think with the suggestion of a place ‘where work might count’, and in the broader context of ‘Sapokanikan’, Newsom is also implicating Manifest Destiny and Westward Expansion.

      While John Purroy Mitchel trained for active service, he never made it to the Western Front of World War I or anywhere else. He trained in the west of the United States, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, in San Diego, California. And when he fell from his plane to his death on 6 July 1918, it was near Lake Charles, Louisiana. His body had to go back east, to New York City, for burial.

      Incidentally, but usefully for ‘Sapokanikan’, the New York Tribune account of John Purroy Mitchel’s death, headlined ‘Mitchel Killed by Fall from Aero; Safety Belt Loose: Ex-Mayor Plunges 500 Feet at Gerstner Field Near Lake Charles, La.’, contains the paragraphs:

      ‘Major Mitchel went into the army service with previous military training, having taken the course at Plattsburg while he was Mayor. Upon joining the aviation service he was sent to San Diego, Cal., where, after successfully passing through the cadet training, he became a full-fledged flier. He was frequently mentioned as having shown unusual daring.’

      And (as George King IV and others have pointed out):

      ‘Major Mitchel and his instructor, Lieutenant John McCaffery, went out on the grounds early this morning, and were laughing and talking about New York City politics. Lieutenant McCaffery jokingly remarked he was sorry he did not vote for Mr. Mitchel in the last election, and Major Mitchel, as he climbed into his seat, smilingly replied:
      “That’s all right; it’s all over now.”
      One of the mechanicians had said a few days ago:
      “It makes my hair stand on end to see Major Mitchel fly; he takes so many of risks and seems to think nothing of it.”‘

      • Read more of the Tribune article. As someone else on another website pointed out, Newsom is quoting Mitchel himself.

        “‘My one wish,’ he said, ‘is to get over to the Western front where I can do some work that will count.'”

        It’s about the war in Europe, not the Western United States.

        • I think ‘Sapokanikan’ implicates the concept of Manifest Destiny and the course of Westward Expansion, by invoking the history of Native Americans as their land was settled by Europeans, by developing a sense of lost peoples and places, and through its questioning relationship with God and religion. But I can also appreciate a reading of ‘Sapokanikan’ that feels any implications in this direction are vague; that the song is fully focused on New York, and that there’s no need to bring Manifest Destiny and whatever else into the discussion.

          And even if the idea of Manifest Destiny is present in the song, perhaps it is stretching to suggest an explicit reference to the Western Front in Europe has anything to do with the course of history across the United States. As you have identified, Newsom is drawing in several places directly from the Tribune article, though she modifies Mitchel’s wish to ‘get over to the Western front where I can do some work that will count’ with a more ambivalent sense of a ‘Western front where work might count’.

          I don’t dispute at all that the line first and foremost refers to the Western Front in World War I. I just feel that the line also bounds back upon the rest of the song. It’s fair, I think, to juxtapose Mitchel’s expressed sentiment in the Tribune article with the facts of his life: in which he never got so far as the Western Front, but instead trained on the West Coast of the United States, in San Diego – the first part of California in which Europeans settled – before dying in Louisiana. And immediately following the line on the ‘Western front’, Newsom turns back to her opening themes and references, to ‘Ozymandias’ and a lost city, and arguably by extension also to the Lenape, though these final lines could be interpreted as a general comment on the destruction of war.

          • I agree that both interpretations have to be taken into account. Newsom is a master of polysemy, and the reference to the Western Front is no exception. References to St. Louis, the Gateway Arch, the flight of Brigham Young and the Mormons through Missouri to the west all imply that Newsom has the concept of Manifest Destiny in mind. Meanwhile, references to Mitchel and to Auschwitz (not WWI, but still evocative of the Western Front) reinforce the imagery of war in Europe and the defense of American Liberty.

            I know some of these references are not mentioned here and are not readily apparent, but if you follow the thread from this article to my article here – – you’ll start to see how these develop from more readily-available references to more inferred ones.

  • Christopher – I’m even more convinced of Joanna Newsom’s intentionally dual “west” after a deep dive into “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne”. The Transcontinental railroad, Muybridge, and miners like Chabot tell of manifest destiny. Meanwhile, the D-Day landings and other clues point to the Western Front. Have a read, and let me know what you think!

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