Vachel Lindsay, Founding Father of Performance Art?
“Boom-lay, boom-lay, boom-lay, BOOM”
“O bronco that would not be broken of dancing.”
“I brag and chant of Bryan, Bryan, Bryan.”
“Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?”
These are just some of the memorable lines written by one of the most innately musical and rhythmical of all poets in English, the American Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). But Lindsay was more than a poet. He was a proto-beatnik decades before Kerouac, a real-time “Song of the Open Road” Whitman who took 600-mile marathon walks across the country, supporting himself along the way by performing supercharged live readings of his own poetry in exchange for room and board. He was a visionary who illustrated his own poems like William Blake, preached what he dubbed “the gospel of beauty,” and published a book, The Art of the Moving Picture, earlier than anyone else had conceived of film as an art form to write about. In a short ten years, he plunged from high-earning, Oxford-feted shooting star into paranoid schizophrenia, epilepsy, and depression, and died a horrible suicide, drinking Lysol.
He was also, arguably, the all-American granddaddy of slam poetry and jazz vocalese, and a co-inventor (and practitioner) of Schoenbergian sprechstimme. Some people have also seen him as a forerunner of rap and hip-hop, and accused him of racism for his poem “The Congo,” even though he spoke out publicly against racial prejudice. But above all, Vachel Lindsay invented performance art as it is practiced in America—that is, as a one-man form of music theatre. What, you say? How can that be? Didn’t performance art evolve out of Marinetti and the Italian Futurists, Arp and the Swiss Dadaists, Andre Breton and the French surrealists, and American media, as RoseLee Goldberg writes in her excellent study Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present? Yes, but it is a tree with deep roots in other soils, as well. Lindsay didn’t just politely declaim his poems in public, he performed them bacchantically, “his body tense and swaying, his hands keeping time like an orchestral leader to his own rhythms, his tone changing color in response to the noise and savage imagery of the lines,” Randolph Bourne wrote. Fellow poet Edgar Lee Masters, in his 1935 biography of Lindsay, described him best: “All this chanting, reciting, and acting is akin to the mixed art of grand opera.”
Lindsay himself dubbed his style “high vaudevillian,” performance in “a sort of ragtime manner that deceives them [his audience] into thinking they are at a vaudeville show.” And indeed, not just so-called new vaudevillians like Bill Irwin but all post-1980 American performance artists, from Karen Finley to Laurie Anderson and beyond, have an enormous unacknowledged debt to the performing style of American vaudevillians a century ago. A unique opportunity to hear Lindsay in live performance is now available here. We can’t see him gesticulating as he did in live performance, but we can listen to how his spoken rhythms don’t sound at all like what you might expect from reading the texts on the printed page. He chants monotonically but then sings sprechstimme, altering the approximate pitch of syllables. In “The Congo,” he even sings the interval of the tritone. Compare his version of “General Booth Enters Heaven” with the Charles Ives setting of the same.
Eyewitness biography can be more intimate and real than scholarly biography, and perhaps the most sympathetic and readable of the biographies of Vachel Lindsay is the out-of-print The West-going Heart by Eleanor Ruggles, who as a child had been a social acquaintance of Lindsay’s in Spokane, Washington. Lindsay lived there for several years with his young wife and children. Ruggles’s book does what Agathe Fassett did for Bartók in The Naked Face of Genius: make an icy (or flaky) artist seem like an everyday person. (In a BBC radio interview, conductor Jascha Horenstein once remarked, with a twinkle in his voice, that Bela Bartók, whom he had met in the 1930s, “wasn’t human.” Musicians can be wicked eyewitnesses of other musicians: Percy Grainger described a 1905 Claude Debussy to a BBC radio interviewer in the late 1950s as “a wild, spitting animal.” Grainger, incidentally, befriended Vachel Lindsay in Spokane in the 1920s.)
Vachel Lindsay is an object lesson in the need to broaden the received perspectives on the antecedents of modernism. Many roads converged to create modernism. Did Lindsay see himself as in the vanguard? He certainly did. The fact that he wasn’t of the church of Dadaism á la Tristan Tzara or Francis Picabia does not take away his bona fides as an innovator. Innovation isn’t limited to extreme art. Vachel Lindsay is the missing link between medieval troubadours and Def Poetry Jam. Let us herald him for that and bestow upon him and other non-extreme artists a freshly examined place in the postmodern firmament.