IHAS: Poet
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VACHEL LINDSAY
(1879-1931)


Vachel Lindsay, together with Langston Hughes, helped define the school of Jazz Poetry in the first decades of the 20th century. So-called because of the syncopated or bluesy rhythms the verse borrowed from the music of the era, the tradition evolved with Hughes into a practice of pitching verse in conjunction with musicians. This style of poetry performance, refined throughout the century, culminated in the famous recordings of the Beat Generation.

Born in Springfield, IL, in 1879, Nicholas Vachel Lindsay turned an early desire to become a missionary into a lifelong crusade for the arts. A painter as well as a poet, Lindsay shared William Blake's visionary bent. Exposed to the Revivalist tradition of the YMCA, camp meetings and evangelical preaching as a child, he renounced the religious basis of this tradition but retained its poetic spirit. Leaving New York City's Art Students League where he had lived the bohemian life and studied from 1904-1909, he tramped America with his Gospel of Beauty--illuminated poems using complex allegorical visual iconography and verbal images which he distributed to his listeners. Once established as a poet, he toured the country, using the cadences of an itinerant preacher to mesmerize crowds in his recitations of his incantatory ballads like THE CONGO or GENERAL WILLIAM BOOTH ENTERS INTO HEAVEN.


Listen to "General Booth Enters Into Heaven" in the Songbook

The Booth poem, which became the centerpiece for Lindsay's first published volume, was conceived in 1912 as a response to newspaper accounts of the founder of the Salvation Army's death on August 12 of that year. His fascination with the great evangelical preacher stemmed in part from his revivalist youth, but may also have been spurred by the heyday of great Army preachers, among them Evangeline Booth, who commanded the American Army from 1904-1934 and whom he would have had innumerable occasions to hear in his New York student days, as well as by two stays at Salvation Army shelters during his mendicant period.

Both Sidney Homer and Charles Ives set the tale of the founder of Booth's triumphal entry into paradise--each approaching the poem from a different perspective. Ives' 1914 setting, which followed closely on the heels of Lindsay's publication-- (there is some evidence that poet and musician may have crossed paths)--adheres more closely to the instrumentation (drums & brass) Lindsay indicated to accompany the reading of his verse, and its spiky rhythms capture more of the unorthodoxy of the poem. On the other hand, as a tape of Lindsay's declaiming of the poem reveals, Homer matches his own cadences to the poet's reading style and permits his ballad to unfold with a naturalness of narration that makes storytelling and heart-string tugging the song's primary aims.

GENERAL WILLIAM BOOTH ENTERS INTO HEAVEN
by Vachel Lindsay

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
The Saints smiled gravely and they said, "He's come,"
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Walking lepers followed rank on rank,
Lurching bravos from the ditches dank
Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale
Minds still passion ridden, soul flowers frail:
Vermin eaten saints with mouldy breath,
Unwashed legions with the ways of Death
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Ev'ry slum had sent its half a score
The world round over. (Booth had groaned for more).
Ev'ry banner that the wide world flies,
Bloomed with glory and transcendent dyes.
Big voiced lassies made their banjoes bang,
Tranced, fanatical they shrieked and sang;
"Are you? Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?"

Hallelujah! It was queer to see
Bull necked convicts with that land made free.
Loons with trumpets blow'd a blare, blare, blare,
On, on, upward thro' the golden air!
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Booth died blind and still by Faith he trod,
Eyes still dazzled by the ways of God!
Booth led boldly and he look'd the chief;
Eagle countenance in sharp relief,
Beard a-flying, air of high command
Unabated in that holy land.

Jesus came from the court house door,
Stretched his hands above the passing poor.
Booth saw not, but led his queer ones
Round and round the mighty courthouse square.
Yet! in an instant all that blear review
Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.

The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled,
And blind eyes opened on a new sweet world.
Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel head, the snout, the jowel!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires and of forests green!
The hosts were sandall'd and their wings were fire!
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

But their noise play'd havoc with the angel choir,
(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)
Oh shout Salvation!
It was good to see Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.
The banjos rattled and the tambourines
Jingjing jingl'd in the hands of Queens.

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer
He saw his Master thro' the flag fill'd air.
Christ came gently with a robe and crown
For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.
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?


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