The Journal of Provincial Thought
jptArchive Iss 15
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"Kid Spats"

                                                Jazz poetry was not discovered by
                                                Allen Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac
                                                let alone Kenny Rexroth
                                                nor was it a literary invention of the
                                                Beat(up) school, the New York school or
                                                any other official institution of 20th
                                                century AVANT-learning . . .
                                                            —Kofi Natambu, “Words & Music in America


Not only did jazz and blues shape the language of everyday speech and the crafted demotic of pop music lyrics, they also shaped literary or formal language.  Jazz, as music and as a linguistic phenomenon, intrigued modernist poets, who saw it as new, dynamic vehicle for their work. It became an art deco symbol for modernity, vitality and youth.  Jazz was at the center of the esthetic developed by the New Negro movement in the Harlem Renaissance.  It was as fascinating as comic strips and movies to a new generation of poets and artists in the 1920s, as mass popular culture assumed its twentieth-century form.  Formal, literary language receded as the medium for polite society, and slang or vernacular expressions became more widely accepted as normal discourse.  The cross-fertilization of everyday speech and songs continued to shape American ideas and expressions.
            Poets were especially intrigued with the expressive possibilities of the music as an element of form.  The rhythmic energy and improvisational spontaneity of the music prompted poets to look for equivalents in verse structure.  The so-called “imitative fallacy” (the idea of literary form imitating or reproducing its content) was especially tempting: to write poems that were “jazzy” or “bluesy,” that in themselves tried to become artifacts that simulated or reproduced the sound/experience of the music.  Because the new music was felt as hyper-expressive, to exist on a novel level of feeling, poets were eager to add jazz and blues to their technical arsenal.  Poets were also attracted to the lyric possibilities of jazz and pop music.  Master lyricists like Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Andy Razaf and many more were making the language of pop music sophisticated, intellectually respectable, imaginative and unforgettable.  A prose stylist as superb as P.G. Wodehouse could be lured into transatlantic musical comedy writing, because the medium offered such a showcase for his skills and because new American music in the 1910s and ’20s was so much more fertile and attractive than traditional British literary genres.  A severe modernist and critical-esthetic eminence like T.S. Eliot could be fascinated with fragments of jazz and ragtime (e.g., “O O O that Shakespeherian Rag” from “The Wasteland) and experiment with mock-vaudeville or minstrel verse in his satirical Sweeney poems.
            The response of poets to jazz and the blues followed quickly on their dissemination.  One of the earliest explorers of African-American music as a new vehicle for poetry was the manic door-to-door minstrel Vachel Lindsay, who in 1914 published a volume of verse including “The Congo,” in some ways his best-remembered poem and one specifically designed, as he noted in the book, “to be read aloud, or chanted.”  A set of poems like annotated musical scores, these choric works included extensive onomatopoeia—sounds reproducing music—and a gloss of detailed, stanza-by-stanza instructions for reading aloud.  They are poems meant to be heard, not seen on the page, and to suggest improvised or spontaneous sound as they are heard. (Lindsay 3-11)
            “The Congo” includes plentiful stereotypes of African-Americans, as  understood from minstrelsy and the “plantation songs” or “coon songs” of vaudeville, the way audiences in Lindsay’s native rural Illinois would have envisioned them.  It is subtitled “A Study of the Negro Race” and divided into three headed sections— “Their Basic Savagery,” “Their Irrepressible High Spirits” and “The Hope of Their Religion”— all hackneyed views of black people and culture.  It also shows a fairly subtle understanding of the rhythms of African-American music and its freedom to use words as purely musical sounds.  Lindsay, like many white listeners, was smitten with the sheer musicality of the culture and romantic enough to succumb to views of the “darky” as both (in Harold Ross’s formula) dangerous (“savage”) and funny (“high-spirited”) and also eligible for redemption, as Americans liked to feel everyone must be. 
            The poem begins with a famously resonant line of staccato alliteration:  “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” with the gloss’s instruction “A deep rolling bass”).  The sound is specified:  “Pounded on the table,/Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom,/hard as they were able” and the sound is then reproduced:  “Boom, boom, BOOM” and “Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM.”  The poem piles up lurid imagery in a section marked “A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket,” including “Tattooed cannibals danced in files” and “skull-faced, lean witch-doctors” and reverting to onomatopoeia at the climax: 
                        Steal all the cattle,
                        Rattle, rattle, rattle,
                        Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,
                        A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
                        From the mouth of the Congo
                        To the Mountains of the Moon.
Interspersed with the H. Rider Haggard stereotypes are the occult power in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the gruesome history of the “scramble for Africa,” with its notorious atrocities ordered by King Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, which fascinated T.S. Eliot, echoing in a line of strange, mocking laughter that Eliot later appropriated:
                        Hoo, Hoo, Hoo.
                        Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
                        Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
                        Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
                        Cutting his hands off, down in Hell.
Eliot’s borrowing from Lindsay occurs most obviously in “Sweeney Agonistes, a Fragment of an Agon,” an “unfinished poem” from the 1920s.  It is a bizarre, surrealistic verse-drama, which includes a bit of simulated minstrel show, featuring a musical comedy ragtime song by Robert Coles and J. Rosamund Johnson, a big hit of 1902, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” quoted literally then freely parodied.  It includes sounds reminiscent of Lindsay’s Congo-language:
                        One live as two
                        Two live as three
                        Under the bam
                        Under the boo
                        Under the bamboo tree.  (120)
Sweeney and Doris discuss “birth, copulation, and death./That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks” (Eliot 119-20), and the work finally ends on a Lindsay-like chorus with sinister overtones:
                        And perhaps you’re alive
                        And perhaps you’re dead
                        Hoo ha ha
                        Hoo ha ha
                        KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK  (124)
Eliot infuses Lindsay’s mocking laughter with even more sinister irony, the “hoo” sound echoing the “boo” sound of “boom” and “bamboo” (see the exhaustive reading in DuPlessis, 668-74).
            Eliot’s recurrent fascination with the “heart of darkness” theme diffused it through 1920s and later literature, in works as different and as influential as Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934), Thomas Pynchon’s V.  (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Paul Theroux’s meditation on nature and technology, The Mosquito Coast  (1981).  The power of Eliot’s reputation as an international modernist master made Lindsay’s ideas more accessible and acceptable than his own humble efforts to hawk them door-to-door in the Middle West.
            The first section of “The Congo” also ends with a “creepy proclamation” about the dark religion of the Congo, as Lindsay imagines it:
                        “Be careful of what you do,
                        Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
                        And all of the other
                        Gods of the Congo,
                        Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
                        Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
                        Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”
This is as repetitive as a traditional blues, as incantatory as a simple riff, to communicate its magic, its mystery.  We will later meet Mumbo-Jumbo in the hands of another poetic master, Ishmael Reed, transformed by an authentic African-American sorcerer.
            The second section, describing African-American “irrepressible high spirits” also begins strikingly with “Wild crap-shooters with a whoop and a call/danced the juba in their gambling-hall,” a striking scene that may have inspired jazz-impressionist composer Eastwood Lane to compose his “The Crap Shooters” as part of a piano suite of five basic American dances in 1919.  The scene becomes dreamlike and surreal as the Congo intrudes on this American landscape, now a “negro fairyland” and “minstrel river/Where dreams come true,” which includes a “baboon butler” and a “parrot band” and a reprise from Africa:
                        A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came
                        Through the agate doorway in suits of flame,
                        Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust
                        And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.
This is followed by a scene from the 1890s, at the height of the cakewalk craze:
                        Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,
                        Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
                        Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,
                        And tall silk hats that were red as wine.
The scene describes the assimilation of African culture into African-American culture:
                        The cake-walk royalty then began
                        To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
                        To the tune of “Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,” . . .
The two sections have described African genesis and American transformation, an attempt to understand black culture from the rich imagination in its music, as Vachel Lindsay heard it.
            The last section on the “hope of their religion” is a similar foray, with black hymns and spirituals as the theme.  The synthesis of the Congo’s “golden track” and American scenes begins with an image of contrasts:  “A good old negro in the slums of the town/Preached at a sister for her velvet gown,” and imitates the revival-meeting music with two lines:
                                    . . . they shook the room
                        With “glory, glory, glory,”
                        And “Boom, boom, BOOM.”
Which leads to an apparent triumph for Christianity in its African-American version:
                        And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
                        Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: —
                        “Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
                        Never again will he hoo-doo you,
                        Never again will he hoo-doo you.”
Marked “Sung to the tune of ‘Hark, ten thousand harps and voices.’”  But the apotheosis is illusory, as Lindsay ends the poem:
                        Redeemed were the forests, the beasts and the men,
                        And only the vulture dared again
                        By the far, lone mountains of the moon
                        To cry, in the silence, the Congo tune: —
                        Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you . . .
Which is given the stage direction, “Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.”  It is a foreshadowing of Eliot’s own heart of darkness poetry in “The Wasteland” and “The Hollow Men,” as well as his little experiments with vaudeville in the Sweeney poems, which all focus on the idea of savagery and civilization and the thin line (in Eliot’s view) between them.  The hollow sounds echoing through Lindsay’s poem—“hoo ha,” “hoo doo,” “boom,” “room,” “moon” are like distant drums or trumpets.   The vultures always wait, a dark, fathomless Congo winds through the heart of western culture, all symbolized by African-Americans and their powerful, mysterious music.
            A few years later in 1920, as the jazz revolution was in high flight, Lindsay wrote another poem for recitation called “The Daniel Jazz,” which reminds us of how the term was used to refer to a thing:  the poem is a “jazz,” just as a record by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band might be called not a song or a tune or a number  but a “jazz”—an idea probably conceived by extension from the idea of ragtime and individual rags or from “blues” as a generic denomination of form.  The poem is a minstrel-like version of the story of Daniel in the lions’ den, with a specifically mock-Dixie slant.  The first two instructions are “Beginning with a strain of ‘Dixie’” and “With a touch of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band.’”  Daniel is described in jazzy, modern terms:
                        Daniel was the chief hired man of the land.
                        He stirred up the jazz in the palace band.
                        He whitewashed the cellar.  He shovelled in the coal.
                        And Daniel kept a-praying “Lord save my soul.”
The poem is a precursor, in its rhythms and direct vernacular descriptions, of Joseph  Moncure March’s lurid The Wild Party (1926), which may owe more than a little to Lindsay’s naïve folk-poetic style.  The poem also suggests a black folk-biblical mentality embodied by James Weldon Johnson’s “seven sermons in verse,” God’s Trombones  (1927), or Marc Connelly’s popular pageant-drama The Green Pastures  (1929), both of which create a literalized version of Old Testament stories enacted by southern black people, in their milieu and language.
            Lindsay continues to describe Daniel in contemporary terms:
                        Daniel was the butler, swagger and swell.
                        He ran up stairs.  He answered the bell.
                        And he would let in whoever came a-calling: —
                        Saints so holy, scamps so appalling.
                        “Old man Ahab leaves his card.
                        Elisha and the bears are waiting in the yard.
                        Here comes Pharaoh and his snakes a-calling.
                        Here comes Cain and his wife a-calling.
                        Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego for tea.
                        Here comes Jonah and the whale,
                        And the Sea!
The poem is full of choric repetitions in a quasi-evangelistic form, and Lindsay clearly envisions a black church service, with its antiphonal reponses by preacher, choir and congregation (the audience here is trained to simulate the lions’ roars).  The poem says little about jazz in 1920, but it makes an overt link between “jazz,” as understood in popular culture and African-American sacred music.  Lindsay is making the obvious assumption that all African-American musics—secular and sacred—are related, and that it is appropriate to tell a sacred story through the medium of “jazz” rhythms, imagery and hard-boiled language.
            Another Lindsay poem of about the same vintage is “The Apple Blossom Snow Blues,” which shows little understanding of the blues form or feeling, but which concludes by fusing dancing, blues, jazz and ragtime in a synthesis.  It begins with an oddly literary stage direction:
                        A “blues” is a song in the mood of Milton’s Il Penseroso, or a
                                    paragraph from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.  This
                                    present production is the chronicle of a vaudeville man, as
                                    he dances in the limelight with his haughty lady.  (Lindsay 87)
Part of the first song or chorus includes the terms of the new music:
                        You rag time lady
                        You jazz dancing lady,
                        You blues-singing lady,”
                        Thinks the blues-singing man. (87-88)
Lindsay goes on to describe this fanciful vaudeville routine, using the word “blues” to mean something more than a song or a tune, something more like a ballet:
                        For he is her lover
                        Her dancing partner,
                        In the blues he made
                        Called “The Apple Blossom Snow.” (88)
The verb “made” is an intriguing one, and it is hard to guess how Lindsay understood “making” a blues in this context—writing a song, extemporaneously creating music, inventing choreography, all of these?
            The poem ends with the usual ecstatic climax that marks Lindsay’s poetry, as he describes the dancing partners:
                        He will dance as he can,
                        As he can,
                        Like a man,
                        With his jazz dancing wonder,
                        With his pansy blossom wonder,
                        With his apple blossom wonder,
                        With his rag time lady,
The instructive gloss for this conclusion reads “Grand finale of jazz music, like the fall of a pile of dishes in the kitchen.”  The idea conveys the common idea that jazz was mere noise and that it sounded like chaotic clatter, probably based on the gimmicky traps often used for comic effect by drummers—whistles, ratchets, gongs, slapsticks, cowbells—and the occasional use of eccentric cornet or trombone mutes—tin cups, pans or cans.



Crane, Hart.  Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose (ed. Brom Weber).  New
            York:  Liveright, 1966.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, “‘Hoo, Hoo, Hoo’:  Some Episodes in the Construction of
            Modern Whiteness,” American Literature, Vol. 67, No. 4 (Dec. 1995), 667-700.
Eliot, T.S.  Collected Poems, 1909-1962New York:  Harcourt, Brace, 1963.
Hillyer, Robert.  Collected PoemsNew York:  Knopf, 1961.
Lange, Art, and Nathaniel Mackey (eds).  Moment’s Notice:  Jazz in Poetry and Prose. Minneapolis:  Coffeehouse Press, 1993.
Lindsay, Vachel.  The Congo and Other PoemsNew York:  Macmillan, 1916.
___________.  The Golden Whales of CaliforniaNew York:  Macmillan, 1920.
March, Joseph Moncure.  The Wild Party and The Set-Up.   Freeport, Maine:  Bond Wheelwright, 1968.
Wooldridge, David.  From the Steeples and MountainsNew York:  Knopf, 1974.

jptArchive Issue 15
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