Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo

a rare moment of poetry with Renzie Baluyut.

A brief exchange with some old high school buddies on Facebook made me remember this one particular poem.

Nicholas Vachel Lindsay.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was a piece our old freshmen class performed- and while the details of that interpretative performance seems rather blurry at this point (which was almost some 20 years ago), the surprising thing is that the words to the poem are still so deeply etched in my skull, I can still recite it (at least most parts) from memory.

It’s a little piece called “The Congo”, a rather well-known work attributed to the American Poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay, and known for his use of the singing poetry/lyrical poetry style.

“The Congo” was written in 1914, and was considered groundbreaking for its time with its use of sound, rhythm and onomatopoeia.

Rereading it now, for the first time in several years, I can’t help but think it sort of stereotypes a particular race of people.  However, according to an entry on Wikipedia, this just isn’t the case.

It is ignorant to connect the poem The Congo to the racism prevalent in the United States of America College Literature at the turn of the 20th century, a racism pervasive even among those who — at least by the standards of the time — saw themselves as opposed to racism. “The Congo” was inspired by a sermon preached in October 1913 that detailed the drowning of a missionary in the Congo river, an event that captured world wide criticism. The poem addresses the Congo’s understandable tension of social transition wherein a relatively isolated and pastoral society is suddenly confronted by the industrialized world. That said, most contemporaries viewed Lindsay as an advocate for African-Americans (See John Chapman Ward: “Vachel Lindsay Is ‘Lying Low'”, 12 (1985): 233-45).

I also just realized that our old freshmen class’ interpretative performance of “The Congo” only made use of one act (Part I. Their Basic Savagery), when there are actually three acts in total.  It was quite interesting to read the entire work in its entirety.

So without further ado, here is Lindsay’s “The Congo”.

Enjoy!

=================================

The Congo: A Study of the Negro Race
by Vachel Lindsay

I. THEIR BASIC SAVAGERY

Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room
Barrel house kings with feet unstable
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table
Pounded on the table
Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom
Hard as they were able
Boom Boom Boom
With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom
Boomalay Boomalay Boomalay Boom
Then I had religion; then I had a vision
I could not turn from their revel in derision
Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black
Cutting through the forest with a golden track
Then along that riverbank
A thousand miles
Tattooed cannibals danced in files
Then I heard the boom of the blood lust song
And a thigh bone beating on a tin pan gong
And “Blood!” screamed the whistles and the fifes of the warriors
“Blood!” screamed the skull-faced lean witch doctors
Whirl ye the deadly voo-doo rattle
Harry the uplands
Steal all the cattle
Rattle-rattle rattle-rattle
Bing.
Boomalay, boomalay, boomalay boom
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
From the mouth of the Congo
To the mountains of the Moon
Death is an elephant
Torch-eyed and horrible
Foam-flanked and terrible
Boom! Steal the pygmies!
Boom! Kill the Arabs!
Boom! Kill the white men!
Boom! Boom! Boom!
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
Listen to the creepy proclamation
Blown through the lairs of the forest nation
Blown past the white ants’ kill of clay
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play
Be careful what you do!
Or Mumbo-jumbo, god of the Congo
And all the other
Gods of the Congo
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you

II. THEIR IRREPRESSIBLE HIGH SPIRITS

Wild crap shooters with a whoop and a call
Danced the juba in their gambling hall
And laughed fit to kill and shook the town
And guyed the policemen and laughed them down
With a boomalay boomalay boomalay boom.
Then I saw the Congo, creeping through the black
Cutting through the forest with a golden track
A negro fairyland swung into view
A minstrel river
Where dreams come true
The ebony palace soared on high
Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky
The inlaid porches and casements shone
With gold and ivory and elephant bone
And the black crowd laughed ’til their sides were sore
At the baboon butler in the agate door
And the well known tunes of the parrot band
That trilled on the bushes of that magic land
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
And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call
And danced the juba from wall to wall
But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng
With a stern cold glare and stern old song
“Mumbo Jumbo will hoo-doo you”. . . .
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.
And they pranced with their butterfly partners there
Coal black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with jassamine sweet,
and bells on their ankles, and little black feet.
And the couples railed at the chant and frown
Of the witch men lean, and laughed them down.
(Oh rare was the revel, an well worth the while,
That made those glowering witch men smile)
The cake walk royalty then began,
To walk for a cake that was tall as a man
To the tune of ‘Boom-lay, Boom-lay, Boom”
While the witch men laughed with a sinister air,
And sang with the scalawags prancing there: —
‘Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo- Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all the other gods of the Congo,
Mumbo Jumbo will hoo doo you.
Beware, beware, walk with care,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom.
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay boom.
Oh rare was the revel and well worth the while
That made those glowering witch-men smile

III. THE HOPE OF THEIR RELIGION

A good old negro in the slums of town
Preached at a sister for her velvet gown
Howled at a brother for his low-down ways
His prowling, guzzling sneak-theif days
Beat on his bible til he wore it out
Started 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
For their stupor and savagery and sin and wrong
And they beat their hymn books til they shook the room
With “Glory, glory, glory,”
And “Boom, boom, boom.”
Then I saw the Congo creeping through the black
Cutting through the forest with a golden track
And the grey sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the Apostles in 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 in their thrones on high
Thrilled all the forest with their heavenly cry
“Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle”
“Never again will he hoo-doo you.”
“Never again will he hoo-doo you.”
And along that river-bank
A thousand miles
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
And where the wild ghost gods had wailed
A thousand boats of the angels sailed
Witth oars of silver and prowsof blue
And silken penants that the sun shone through
T’was a land transfigured, t’was a new creation
Oh, a singing wind swept the Negro nation
And on through the back-woods clearing flew
Mumbo-Jumbo is dead in the jungle
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,”
“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,”
“Mumbo-Jumbo. . .will. . .hoo-doo. . .you. . .

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