Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Time Waits for No Man

Carl Sandburg wrote:

Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.

I always liked Carl Sandburg's stuff. I used to have a record of him reading his poems and I loved it. He considered himself a true American balladeer and he lived bohemianally well in the North Carolina hills playing his guitar and singing ancient American songs.

American white poets were troubadours. Isn't it a shame I have to stress that Carl Sandburg is a white poet; but I have to because though the feeling of poetry knows only its own color and comes to fruition in the plain ole human solar plexus, though the poetry is the same. the language, the rhythm, and the meaning in white poetry is different from that of black poetry. Carl Sandburg probably wasn't intellectually a racist--certainly not as a poet, but he probably was a racist. See what I mean?

Vachel Lindsay, for instance, is a very wonderful early American white poet, a troubadour of the ilk I love and imitate, a tragic entertainer who would act out his poems on stages and he would emote them with the thunderous virtuosity of Franz Liszt playing his own B-mol Sonata. But his most famous poem is his interpretation of the black man's race and how it's only hope is the black interpretation of the white man's "saving" religion--and I can see how a black man wouldn't really be interested in it; it's so wrongly white yet it's a good poem as far as I'm concerned, though I can hear a black poet tearing it to shreds. Was Vachel Lindsay a racist?

Here's the final section of Lindsay's The Congo: a Study of the Negro Race. The first two sections delve into what makes blacks "savages" and he finds that's due to the echoes of the Congo still ravaging their blood with its ancient rhythms and voodoo ululations and the devil drums that talk that talk from out of their aboriginal past. The second section describes the "negro's" "high spirits" and this Congo mysticism flooding into them from out of their pasts and how that is interpreted in America in dice shooting, wild juba dancing, and the calling in of witch doctors and ancient potions and chants to put a hoodoo on us all. But then comes Vachel's salvation for the black man: his new American religion; how he turned his jungle voodoo into the Holy Spirit of the white man's religion, his only hope:


A good old negro in the slums of the town
Heavy bass. With a literal imitation of camp-meeting racket, and trance.
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.
And some had visions, as they stood on chairs,
And sang of Jacob, and the golden stairs,
And they all repented, a thousand strong
From their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And slammed with their hymn books till they shook the room
With "glory, glory, glory,"
And "Boom, boom, BOOM."
Exactly as in the first section. Begin with terror and power, end with joy.
And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the Apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steel they were seated round
And their fire-eyes watched where the Congo wound.
And the twelve Apostles, from their thrones on high
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry: --
"Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Sung to the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

Then along that river, a thousand miles
With growing deliberation and joy.
The vine-snared trees fell down in files.
Pioneer angels cleared the way
For a Congo paradise, for babes at play,
For sacred capitals, for temples clean.
Gone were the skull-faced witch-men lean.
There, where the wild ghost-gods had wailed
In a rather high key -- as delicately as possible.
A million boats of the angels sailed
With oars of silver, and prows of blue
And silken pennants that the sun shone through.
'Twas a land transfigured, 'twas a new creation.
Oh, a singing wind swept the negro nation
And on through the backwoods clearing flew: --
"Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle.
To the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices."
Never again will he hoo-doo you.
Never again will he hoo-doo you.

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,
Dying down into a penetrating, terrified whisper.
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.
Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you."

Sounds like Vachel wants to send all these new-born blacks back to the Congo (and Old Honest Abe "Ship 'Em Back to Africa" Lincoln was one of Vachel's heroes) now that they all turned their voodoo savagery into the purety and whiteness of Christian worship, except for those damn vultures who keep the old ways alive from under the pure white veil of the new black hymns you can still hear their ancestry chanting, "Mumbo-jumbo will hoo-doo you./Mumbo...Jumbo...will...hoo-doo... you."

When I was young, I, and a lot of my generation, the "forgotten" generation I call us, had a hope going around that one day we would be a "unified" world, meaning a unisex world with its own unisex styles and fashions and appliances and hairstyles--Unisex hair salons actually came into existence just after Kennedy's New Frontier ideas sexed us up in terms of a coming peaceful unified world, which also meant to us a "tan" world. A mixing of colors into a unified world of tan people wearing unisex clothes (they were very NASA in their designs--like the kind of clothes Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Uruhu, the Star Trek characters wore). That's what my generation envisioned, at least those of us who felt an urge in our solar plexuses to become troubadours, a collective of storytellers and imaginative dramatists improvising on the spot an art that impressionistically helped us find a new vision of the panorama of views we live within and songs that can be sung in any language with any accent, a mixing of cultures into a spheric culture. Our music included the songs of whales as well as the sounds of stars singing far out into outer space, those outbacks that border on that Great Chaos of what was behind the Big Bang.

In Sociology in my day, we read a book by Theodore Dobzhansky (with LC Dunn) called Heredity, Race, and Society, published by the great New American Library in 1946. In that book, Dobzhansky, a brilliant biologist-geneticist, had originally studied the fruit fly in terms of evolutionary biology, he being a Darwinist and famous for his statement "You can't explain anything in biology without evolution." In this wonderful little volume, Dobzshansky and Dunn show scientifically that "race" is mythology and not fact, proving to me "beyond the shadow of any doubt" through genetics that judging people on the basis of their skin color is a total bunch of hooey straight out of our various myth systems (see Sir James Fraser's The Golden Bough) and how skin color was a natural evolutionary phenomenon and the color of a human being's skin had nothing whatsoever to do with his humanness; under the skin we are all the same people. And according to the African Origin theories, and I see nothing wrong with them, we are all Africans.

What a shame white people chose skin color as symbolic proof of their superiority. But it seems our cultures are based on skin color; therefore, our musics, our paintings, our poetry, our novels, our folkness, our personas are based on skin color, too. It's gotten so unintelligent it now determines even the way we speak--black folks speak like the skin signals, like black folks. Whites speak and read and act like whites. When they try to act like blacks they look like fools; simply because their skin is white. God-damn, we are judged throughout our lives here in white America by the color of our skin. Yes, if you are white right now you are privileged right off the bat. I can understand how a black person does not want to act like a white person. Nor do Mexicans, who are brown people. Nor do yellow people. Nor do red people. They want to be themselves not based on skin color; except, they can't, we can't, because all of our white thinking and history is all based on skin color. Then next comes religion. Ain't that a shame, Fats Domino used to sing, "and you're the one to blame." I don't see any way out of this skin division labyrinth. I really don't.

Not right now anyway. Georgie Porgie, our "president," I guaran-damn-tee you, is a racist.

the Daily Growler

The Daily Growler Quote of the Day:
"I have with much practice been able to keep five, and even six, rhythms going in mind at once, so that I can hear each one naturally by leaning toward it, changing the ear in each measure--and I think this is the more natural way of hearing and learning the use of and feeling for rhythms, than by writing them and playing from them on paper, which shows the exact position of each note in relation to each other, in the eye. The way I did it was to take, for instance, in the left hand a 5--with the left foot, beat a 2--with the right foot, beat a 3--with the right hand, play an 11--and sing a 7. Various other rhythms can be held in the mind in this way, and after a while they become as natural as it is for Toscanini to beat down-left-right-up as evenly as a metronome for two hours steadily, and do it nice, with the ladies all tapping time with their feet..." Charles Ives, from From the Steeples and Mountains, Donald Wooldridge, Knopf, 1974.

The Daily Growler finds the above very American; very nonracial, though perhaps our hero Charles Ives may have been a racist, but we don't like to think so. His actions and music speak louder than his white skin. His wife, Harmony Ives, was a founder and patron of the Fresh Air Fund of New York which sent (and still exists, we think) families from the ghettoes of NYC on two-week paid vacations in the country, conceiving the idea from her volunteering at the Henry Street Settlement. Through her Fresh Air Fund, Harmony Ives met the slum-dwelling, impoverished, sweatshop-working Osburne family and their youngest child, 15-month-old Edith, "weakly and dark eyed from squatting beside her mother for 10 hours a day in an ill-lit New York sweatshop." Later, the Iveses convinced the Osburnes to allow them to adopt Edith, and on October 18, 1916, Harmony wrote in her diary, "Edith is now our own." Ives had a daughter. Still, Ives might have been a racist if judged by today's terms. He certainly lived in a society that only had blacks as servants, though in New York City during those years black music was certainly heard all around from the minstrels, vaudeville, and certainly the stories of the many white cruelties against freed blacks going on in the "emancipated" South and even in New York City--"Another black man was lynched today" was in the news every day in those days--except, Ives very seldom read newspapers. But he knew. He knew the music of Stephen Foster who was very sympathetic to the Abolitionist Movement. Hell, Charles Ives's father when he was 16 "finds Foster outside a Harlem bar, late at night, a derelict, penniless alcoholic. No one knew what he was doing so far from his rooming house on the Bowery. George Ives helped him to a nearby house and never saw him again." You've got to know Charles Ives grew up knowing all about Stephen Foster his life and certainly his music. We like to think, in our white-guilt-tripping way, Ives was not a racist, though, maybe he was just because he was a white American. That's a shame, isn't it?


Larry Stevens said...

Was Vachel Lindsay a racist? If The Congo was our only source, it would be nearly inescapable. But I'm happy to report that Vachel was a tireless champion for civil rights from about 1908 on.

Please see here. It's contains a reference to a perfomance of the The Congo by an African-American poet and professor of literature at the Lindsay Home last year.

Lindsay witnessed the shocking 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois and because of it spent the rest of his career lecturing , writing and performing in favor of equality and against bigotry and discrimination. The Congo was a disaster for him in the long run, though, and he grew to detest it as he realized more of his audiences had only a racist appreciation for it.

Perhaps you are familiar with Lindsay's early encounter with Langston Hughes? Lindsay was staying in a hotel in D.C. and, while eating in the restaurant, Langston Hughes, a busboy in the restaurant, left some of his poetry on the famous poet's table.

Lindsay recited the poems at an event he was doing that night and declared that he discovered the new black poet. Thus, Lindsay is credited for discovering Hughes.

Larry Stevens
The Vachel Lindsay Association

Anonymous said...

Great blog , I have been on the lookout for poetry for months and im really looking for inspiration for my next book so keep up the good work guys.