Vachel Lindsay

Vachel Lindsay

1879 - 1931

Starting in 1909, Vachel Lindsay tramped the countryside dramatically declaiming his vivid poetry. His poems have inspired composers from Charles Ives and Sidney Homer to Norman Dello Joio and Jake Heggie.

Photo: Vachel Lindsay, 1913, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

About

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, Illinois 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. From 1904 to 1909 he lived the Bohemian life in New York City, attending the Art Students League. Then he left to tramp 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 with recitations of his incantatory ballads like “The Congo” and “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven.”

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 death of the founder of the Salvation Army. Lindsay’s fascination with the great evangelical preacher stemmed in part from his Revivalist youth, but it may also have been spurred by the heyday of great Army preachers, among them Evangeline Booth (daughter of William), who commanded the American Army from 1904 to 1934; Lindsay would have had innumerable occasions to hear her during his New York student days. Two stays at Salvation Army shelters during Lindsay’s mendicant period may also have been influential.

Both Sidney Homer and Charles Ives set the tale of Booth's triumphal entry into paradise, each approaching the poem from a different perspective. Ives's 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 and brass) that Lindsay indicated to accompany the reading of his verse, and its spiky rhythms capture more of the unorthodoxy of the poem. Homer, on the other hand, matches his cadences to the poet's reading style, as a tape of Lindsay's declaiming of the poem reveals, and permits his ballad to unfold with a naturalness of narration that makes storytelling and heartstring-tugging the song's primary aims.

--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Songs & Song Collections BY Lindsay (entered to date)
Composers who set Lindsay's TEXTS (entered to date)

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