On Vachel Lindsay and the Higher Vaudeville

A look today at problematic and pathbreaking poet/performer Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). Folks of a century ago would be astounded to learn how obscure a figure he has become today. He was a big deal in the early 20th century! There are two points of interest about Lindsay that should appeal to readers of this blog:

First, he wrote the first (or one of the first) books of film criticism, back in the silent days, of course, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915).

But secondly, there is the main trunk of his unique art, which was part poetry, part theatre. He called what he did the “Higher Vaudeville” though I have not yet ascertained whether he ever performed in actual vaudeville theatres. What he did was closer to the kind of stuff that was generally embraced on the Chautauqua Circuit. Lindsay hailed from Springfield, Illinois, part of that mega-wave of great, truly interesting writers who came out of America’s Heartland in the late 19th/ early 20th century (such as Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters, whose names are often linked with Lindsay’s). Lindsay’s father was a wealthy doctor. Due to family pressure Lindsay trained for medicine as well, but he abandoned those studies after three years. He then traded his scalpels for paintbrushes, studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as the New School.

In 1905, he became a poet. Not just a poet, but a sort of living legend. Like a latter day, Johnny Appleseed he embarked on long distance walking tours of hundreds of miles, selling a pamphlet full of his poems along the way in exchange for food and board. His routes included: Jacksonville, Florida to Kentucky (1906), New York City to Hiram, Ohio, site of his alma mater (1908), and Illinois to New Mexico (1912). In so doing, he truly experienced America as not even Walt Whitman had. In time that became his nickname: the American Troubadour.

By the teens Lindsay had developed his theory and technique of the Higher Vaudeville, a way of performing his poetry that mixed elements of jazz and tribal rhythms with the exuberance of the sideshow talker and the evangelical preacher. It was a way of getting back to the roots of theatre in Ancient Greece, which tradition tells us began with Thespis, who was a solo performer. Lindsay’s work was full of MUSIC and SOUND, even on the page, and nonsense syllables and onomatopoeia. No less a figure than Yeats was a fan of his work.

Lindsay’s best known work is “The Congo” (1914). Which brings us to the use of the word “problematic” in our opening sentence. Much of what was intended to be well-meaning homage with regard to race and cultural borrowing can strike the modern reader or auditor as patronizing, or kleptomaniacal, or full on racist today. Lindsay “borrowed” from African and African-American culture, interpreted it after his own fashion, and was also an advocate and supporter of artists like Langston Hughes. It doesn’t always translate well to modern ears, and even in its own time, it had its critics. In this, it shares a lot in common with minstrelsy, which (contrary to popular misconception) wasn’t always practiced with active hatred, but often more as a thoughtless act of appropriation or unreflective insult.

Be that as it may, the story has a sad ending. In 1931, beset with money problems and failing health, Lindsay committed suicide by drinking cleaning solution. He left behind a wife and two children. His populist poetry, designed to be performed (ideally by Lindsay himself), and of little interest to academics in the hyper-literary age of Pound and Eliot, faded into obscurity. Still, Lindsay was one of the early forerunners of what we now know as Performance Art or Spoken Word. There are some recordings of him doing his thing. Some of them are available on Youtube. There are aspects of his art I have tried to emulate on many an occasion, and intend to do again!