August 5, 2000


Critics called him, "crazier than a bedbug", a "buffoon", and an, "apocalyptic jazzite." Looking like a hired hand who had lost his comb and borrowed a suit from a larger man, he got up on platforms across the U. S. and wove and bound his spells. He called it Higher Vaudeville. He threw in the fervor of a revival meeting, the syncopation of a cakewalk, and the rapid, rattling patter of hip-hop (waaay before his time). You did not attend one of Vachel Lindsay's poetry roadshows to catch up on your sleep. Oh, no.

Many of his crowd-pleasers, such as "General William Booth Enters Into Heaven" came with suggestions for musical effects. Audiences were expected to join in. "Bass drum beaten loudly", opens the poem. Banjos were to join in at, " Big-voiced lasses made their banjos bang, / Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang: -- / "Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?". At Booth's death, "Bass drum slower and softer." As Jesus comes to meet him and, "The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled / And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world," sweet flute music is played. At the finale all instruments drop out as, "He saw King Jesus. They were face to face, / And he knelt a weeping in that holy place. / Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?" That final line, repeated often, was your part. Another crowd pleaser, one sure to be controversial today, was "The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race." You'll have to read it and decide if it's truly "racist", but that doesn't seem to have been Lindsay's intent. (Belgium's King Leopold II is consigned to hell, for example.) But the sounds range from African drums to joyous camp-meeting ecstasy. "Rattle-rattle, rattle-rattle, / Bing. / Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM," as the natives, "Pounded on the table, / Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom, / Hard as they were able." Later, during a church service, "A good old negro in the slums of the town...Preached at a sister for her velvet gown. / Howled at a brother for his low-down ways, / His prowling, guzzling, sneak thief days. / Beat on the Bible till he wore it out / Starting the jubilee revival shout." Finally the congregants, "slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room / With "glory, glory, glory," / And "Boom, boom, BOOM." Just try to sleep through that. Audiences didn't.

The rest of Lindsay's life was anticlimactic. He became burnt-out, physically and emotionally, with the constant touring and the audiences who clamored for Booth and Congo, over and over again. In January of 1923 he collapsed on tour and canceled the remainder of his schedule. Life became quieter then, but not less busy. Marriage, a teaching stint, a move to the northwest, and an unending flow of verse, followed. Further volumes of poetry were published. But critics began pointing out that the quality of the recent poetry was declining. Sales began to drop. In October of 1928, with debts mounting, Lindsay took to the road again, in a grueling six-moth tour that eliminated his debts. In 1929 he moved his family to Springfield, Illinois, where they settled in the house where had been born. It was there, on December 5, 1931, he died. The coroner's report called it heart failure. The truth came out four years later. Vachel Lindsay had killed himself by drinking Lysol. He had once written, "I would be one with the sacred earth / On to the end till I sleep with the dead. / Terror shall put no spears through me. / Peace shall jewel my shroud instead."

For Classical 91.5, this is David Minor


© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte