Skip to main content

The References to State History in Sufjan Stevens’ 'Illinois' Album, Explained

Daniel Hautzinger
A profile and straight-on mugshot of serial killer John Wayne Gacy side-by-side
Police mugshot of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, Des Plaines, Illinois, December 22, 1978. Credit: Chicago History Museum, ICHi-021728

Additional writing and research conducted by Meredith Francis.

Almost two decades after it was first released, a beloved album that incorporates Illinois history into moving personal stories and songs is getting a spotlight in a “new kind of musical” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Illinoise is a dance show/concert/theater piece by choreographer Justin Peck and playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury based on Sufjan Stevens’ 2005 album Illinois.

The album is chock-full of references to Illinois and Chicago history, people, places, and events, whether oblique or direct. We tried our best to discern them. Find explanations of each song’s references below.

Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois

Early in the morning on January 5, 2000, Melvern Noll spotted a triangular flying object in Highland, near St. Louis: “in the spirit of three stars / the alien thing,” in Stevens’ lyrics. Noll reported it to the police. Several officers throughout the area then also saw something in the sky above the towns of Lebanon, Shiloh, Millstadt, and Dupo, before it disappeared. It has never been explained.

The Black Hawk War, or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About Yourself in the Morning, or, We Apologize for the Inconvenience but You're Going to Have to Leave Now, or, 'I Have Fought the Big Knives and Will Continue to Fight Them Until They Are Off Our Lands!'

The Treaty of 1804 pushed Native Americans off their lands in Illinois to west of the Mississippi River, but a Sauk warrior named Black Hawk argued that the treaty was invalid and crossed back over the river in 1832 to take back the land. The United States Army eventually joined the conflict between Black Hawk and local white militias, pushing the Native Americans back across the river. More than 1,000 of Black Hawk’s followers died in the war. Monuments, forts, and parks in Illinois mark sites associated with the war.

Come On! Feel the Illinoise! (Part I: The World's Columbian Exposition / Part II: Carl Sandburg Visits Me in a Dream)

The first part of this song refers to the influential World’s Fair of 1893 hosted in Chicago’s Jackson Park. Held on the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas, the fair featured a “great white city” of shining white pavilions built in neoclassical style: Stevens’ lyric “celebrate the ancients” could refer to both Columbus and the Greek temple-like structures. “Classical devotion / architect promotion” certainly refers to the buildings, whose planning was overseen by architect Daniel Burnham. Stevens also later references architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who lived and worked in the western suburb of Oak Park at the time.

“From Paris incentive / like Cream of Wheat invented / the Ferris Wheel” notes a few things debuted at the fair: not just Cream of Wheat, but also the Ferris Wheel, which engineer George Ferris created as a rival attraction to the centerpiece of the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, the Eiffel Tower.

Part II of the song describes a visitation at night by the ghost of Carl Sandburg, the Galesburg, Illinois-born poet who famously described Chicago as the “City of the Big Shoulders” and “Hog Butcher for the World” in his poem “Chicago.”

John Wayne Gacy, Jr.

Gacy was a serial killer who sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men and boys at his home near O’Hare in Norwood Park. Stevens relays several biographical details: an alcoholic father, Gacy’s performances as a clown, and his hiding of the bodies of his victims in the crawl space of his house.


The central Illinois town of Jacksonville was a stop on the Underground Railroad that shepherded escaped slaves to freedom in the North, hence the opening lyric of “I’m not afraid of the Black man running / He’s got it right, he’s got a better life coming.” It also contains the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired, which receive several references in the song.

A Short Reprise for Mary Todd, Who Went Insane, but for Very Good Reasons

The wife of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln was tried and institutionalized in an asylum in Batavia by her son Robert Todd Lincoln due to supposedly erratic behavior after the assassination of her husband and early deaths of three of her sons. She may have suffered from bipolar disorder.

Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!

The central Illinois city of Decatur is located on the Sangamon River and has housed grain processors (“the smell of the grain”) and a Caterpillar factory. It contains a Civil War memorial in a supposedly haunted cemetery (“Civil War skeletons in their graves”) as well as a restaurant whose owner had a Cadillac decked out with a giant chicken (“Chickenmobile with your rooster tail”). Abraham Lincoln lived there and gave his first political speech there, hence the references to him and his legendary debates against Stephen A. Douglas.

One Last 'Whoo-Hoo!' for the Pullman!!

Luxurious Pullman Palace Cars were manufactured near Chicago, and the company and its workers played an important role in labor history, civil rights, and even the architecture of Chicago, as explored in our Chicago Stories documentary and companion website about it.


Stevens gets especially intimate and personal on this one, and doesn’t reference any Illinois or Chicago history – at least that we’ve noticed!

Casimir Pulaski Day

Stevens tells a wrenching story about the death of a young love from cancer in this song named after an Illinois holiday that honors the Polish Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski. The girl in the song dies on March 1, Casimir Pulaski Day. The holiday exists in Illinois in large part because of the prominent Polish community in Chicago and some other Illinois cities.

To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament, and It Involves Tube Socks, a Paper Airplane, and Twenty-Two Able-Bodied Men

The Rock River flows from Wisconsin through Rockford before meeting the Mississippi at the Quad Cities. As an industrial city, Rockford’s fortunes languished starting in the late twentieth century, with population decline and high unemployment rates that have more recently lowered. (As for the tube socks, paper airplane, and able-bodied men, we have no idea!)

The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts

The comic book hero Superman lives in Metropolis, so the small town of Metropolis, Illinois on the border of Kentucky has leaned into a connection to the superhero: there’s a statue of Superman in front of the county courthouse and an annual “Superman Celebration.” Superman is the “Man of Steel” referenced in the lyrics, allowing for Stevens’ pun on “steals our hearts” as well. He also appears on the album cover.

Prairie Fire That Wanders About

The lyrics of this song mention Peoria by name and call out some of its history, including its reputation as the epitome of middle America – “Will it play in Peoria?” used to be a way to ask if something would appeal to mainstream America. “The Opera House / Where Emma sang” is likely a reference to Chicago-born, Peoria-raised opera singer Emma Abbott, who performed in the city’s Grand Opera House. The Grand Opera House burned down in a fire in 1909.

The name-checked “Lydia” is likely Lydia Moss Bradley, a philanthropist and bank president who founded a university in Peoria and made her life there.

“And Santa Claus / The Great Parade” pays homage to the city’s annual Santa Claus Parade, a long-running tradition that celebrated its 136th year in 2023.

Fun fact: the athletic teams of nearby Knox College in Galesburg are called the Prairie Fire.

A Conjunction of Drones Simulating the Way in Which Sufjan Stevens Has an Existential Crisis in the Great Godfrey Maze

The title of this instrumental track mentions the Great Godfrey Maze, an expansive, annual fall corn maze that, when viewed from the air, portrays an elaborate design. It’s located in Godfrey, a town near St. Louis.

The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!

Another personal song with few historical references, this is set in Mississippi Palisades State Park in northern Illinois on the Mississippi River. The park is indeed “north of Savanna.”

They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!

Ulysses S. Grant, who lived in Galena, Illinois, and Ronald Reagan, born in Tampico, Illinois, both get ghostly shout-outs in this song. The lyrics also spell out or mention the names of tiny Illinois villages, including many that no longer have residents, as well as the city of Kankakee.

Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It All the Way Out in Bushnell

This short instrumental track is a nod to Bushnell, Illinois –  a small, rural town located in the western part of the state.

In This Temple as in the Hearts of Man for Whom He Saved the Earth

The title of this instrumental track is an homage to the words carved above Abraham Lincoln’s head at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The monument inscription, which is slightly different from the track title, reads, “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”

The Seer's Tower

The title of this song is likely a play on the Sears Tower, which opened in 1973. Four years after Stevens’ album was released, the tallest building in Chicago – and, at one point, the world – was renamed the Willis Tower.

The Tallest Man, the Broadest Shoulders (Part I: The Great Frontier  / Part II: Come to Me Only with Playthings Now)

Once again, the lyrics of this song make quick references to moments in the state’s history. The “Broadest Shoulders” mentioned in the title serve as yet another tip-of-the-hat to Carl Sandburg’s “City of the Big Shoulders,” which has been adapted to “city of broad shoulders.”

There is mention of “chewing gum” – perhaps Wrigley Gum, which initially began as a soap and baking soda sales venture by businessman William Wrigley, Jr. The song also calls out “the lantern,” which is possibly the infamous lantern that was supposedly kicked over by Catherine O’Leary’s cow that started the Great Chicago Fire. There’s also “the house we got at Sears,” which is a reference to Chicago-born mail order giant Sears and the home-building kits that they sold out of their catalogs.

In part II of the song, there is another mention of Chicago’s Great Fire, and, sadly for the Cubs fans out there (since the album came out before the 2016 World Series win), the lyrics allude to the “Great Goat, the curse you gave us.” This part of the song also acknowledges pioneering social reformer Jane Addams, and the fact that the city dyes the Chicago River green every St. Patrick’s day (“Oh great river, green with envy”). Jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman, who was born in Chicago, is name-checked, as are the Bears, Bulls, and Shoeless Joe Jackson of the White Sox and infamous Black Sox scandal.

Riffs and Variations on a Single Note for Jelly Roll, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, and the King of Swing, to Name a Few

Jazz musicians Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong, and Warren “Baby” Dodds all lived and made music in Chicago at one point or another. Chicago-born Benny Goodman was known as “The King of Swing.”

Out of Egypt, into the Great Laugh of Mankind, and I Shake the Dirt from My Sandals as I Run

When white settlers came to southern Illinois and found a great river (the Mississippi), fertile floodplains, and Native American mounds like the pyramids of Egypt, they drew a connection to that North African country and eventually nicknamed southern Illinois “Little Egypt.” Town names such as Cairo (pronounced “KAY-ro”), Illinois’ southernmost city, reflect that.