''Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you'': Vachel Lindsay reads The Congo
February 10, 2010 1:58 PM   Subscribe

Vachel Lindsay reads The Congo.
Jim Dickinson reads The Congo.
Laura Fox reads The Congo.
Vachel Lindsay as Performer
Lindsay and Racism
See also Race Criticism of "The Congo"
A podcast: Noncanonical Congo: A Discussion of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo."

The Congo

(A Study of the Negro Race)

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,

--A deep rolling bass.--

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,
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, 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,

--More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.--

CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE 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.

--A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.--

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!
Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,"
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune

--With a philosophic pause.--

From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
Torch-eyed and horrible,

--Shrilly and with a heavily accented meter.--

Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,

--Like the wind in the chimney.--

HOO, HOO, HOO.
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' hill of clay,
Blown past the marsh where the butterflies play:—
"Be careful what you do,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,

--All the o sounds very golden. Heavy accents very heavy. Light accents very light. Last line whispered.--

And all of 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

--Rather shrill and high.--

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 boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, BOOM....
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,

--Read exactly as in first section.--

CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.

A negro fairyland swung into view,

--Lay emphasis on the delicate ideas. Keep as light-footed as possible.--

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 till 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

--With pomposity.--

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 great deliberation and ghostliness..--

With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song:—
"Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you."...
Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,

--With overwhelming assurance, good cheer, and pomp.--

Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,
Shoes with a patent leather shine,
And tall silk hats that were red as wine.
And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,

--With growing speed and sharply marked dance-rhythm.--

Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,
Knee-skirts trimmed with the jessamine sweet,
And bells on their ankles and little black feet.
And the couples railed at the chant and the frown
Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.
(O rare was the revel, and well worth 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 "Boomlay, boomlay, BOOM,"
While the witch-men laughed, with a sinister air,

--With a touch of negro dialect, and as rapidly as possible toward the end.--

And sang with the scalawags prancing there:—
Walk with care, walk with care,
Or Mumbo-Jumbo, God of the Congo,
And all of 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 while

--Slow philosophic calm.--

That made those glowering witch-men smile.

III. THE HOPE OF THEIR RELIGION

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 their hymn books till they shook the room
With "Glory, glory, glory,"
And "Boom, boom, BOOM."

THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,

--Exactly as in the first section.--

CUTTING THROUGH THE JUNGLE WITH A GOLDEN TRACK.

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 off into a penetrating, terrified whisper.--

Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you,
Mumbo ... Jumbo ... will ... hoo-doo ... you."
posted by y2karl (28 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
So.....what is the Congo?
posted by wheelieman at 2:08 PM on February 10, 2010


This is not the Treaty of Westhphalia that I am familiar with.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:08 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Um Bongo, Um Bongo, they drink it in the Congo.
posted by the cuban at 2:08 PM on February 10, 2010


This is not the Treaty of Westhphalia that I am familiar with.

''This is not the Treaty of Westphalia with which I am familiar,'' scans better.
posted by y2karl at 2:13 PM on February 10, 2010


"Nothing can go wrong-o, I'm in the Congo!"
posted by Floydd at 2:17 PM on February 10, 2010


Is this where I come to complain about the computer generated apes dying in the lava?
posted by hippybear at 2:20 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Bongo, Bongo, Bongo I don't want to leave the Congo.

The more I look into this, the more the Congo seems like the very locus of the White European and American nightmarish fasntasies about Africa.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:21 PM on February 10, 2010


Ubangi BOOM!
Orangutang!

posted by squalor at 2:31 PM on February 10, 2010


The more I look into this, the more the Congo seems like the very locus of the White European and American nightmarish fasntasies about Africa.

From the notes to Noncanonical Congo: A Discussion of Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" :
Charles Bernstein finds this "one of the most interesting poems to teach," and adds: "[Lindsay] felt there was something deeply wrong with white culture, that it was hung up, ... that it was disembodied, that it was too abstract." All the problems of the poem, Charles notes, remain present when one reads or hears it. It's all there. It's not a "bad example" of something; it makes its own way (or loses its way) in the modern poetic tradition, as it is...

Aldon [Nielsen] doesn't want to "get past" the tension between Lindsay's desire to make a progressive statement and the racist content in the poem; as a whole, this work creates a tension that is "absolutely at the core of American culture." Aldon is hesitant to use the phrase "teachable moment" (which during 2009 has been a phrase that is dulled from facile overuse in the "ongoing conversation" about race) but that--teachability--is about the sum of it: to teach this poem is to gain access to a central American discussion.
I agree with Nielsen. Like the whole phenomenon of blackface minstrelsy, The Congo really is at the heart of race matters in this country. And the story of Lindsay's life and poems is fascinating. I think it was wrong to delete him and his poems from the taught canon.
posted by y2karl at 2:52 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


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.


I missed that when I first read it, so long ago in high school, and, therefore, missed the reference to those lines in Adam Hochschild's title.
posted by y2karl at 3:01 PM on February 10, 2010


Awesome! Lindsay is one of my all-time favorite poets. The Leaden-Eyed stills gives me chills every time I read it:

Let not young souls be smothered out before
They do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.
It is the world’s one crime its babes grow dull,
Its poor are oxlike, limp and leaden-eyed.
Not that they starve, but starve so dreamlessly;
Not that they sow, but that they seldom reap;
Not that they serve, but have no gods to serve;
Not that they die, but that they die like sheep.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 3:33 PM on February 10, 2010 [2 favorites]


"The Congo" is dreadfully racist and offensive, but by the gods is it fun to recite.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:43 PM on February 10, 2010


Allelon Ruggiero reads "The Congo." In a cave. With a bunch of pubescent boys. Including that guy from House M.D. And, most importantly, a mouth harp.
posted by steef at 3:46 PM on February 10, 2010


There I was there I was there I was in...
posted by Sand at 3:49 PM on February 10, 2010 [1 favorite]


Vachel Lindsay lived in Springfield, Illinois, which is where I grew up. I used to walk by his house on the way to a class I was taking.

The main thing I remember learning about him was that he killed himself by drinking lye. Helluva way to go.

His grandson (quite elderly when I met him) also would do recitations of Lindsay's poems.
posted by leahwrenn at 4:29 PM on February 10, 2010


The main thing I remember learning about him was that he killed himself by drinking lye.

Lysol, actually. Not that there would be that much difference as far as the experience was concerned, one would assume.
posted by y2karl at 4:44 PM on February 10, 2010


I like Vachel Lindsay's poetry -- some of it is absolutely beautiful -- but yes, there are some elements that are troubling. Even with the whole "it was the time he was in" allowances. I never quite knew how to feel about "The Congo" (mostly, I just ignored it, honestly) and I still don't.

Thank you for these links.
posted by darksong at 5:01 PM on February 10, 2010


Good to know about the lysol...I always had mild horrors imagining the lye burning down his throat. I suppose as a kid I knew what lye was but not lysol.
posted by leahwrenn at 5:58 PM on February 10, 2010


> the Congo seems like the very locus of the White European and American nightmarish fasntasies about Africa.

The Congo he's a mighty river
Blow, boys, blow
Where the fever makes the white man shiver
Blow, me bully boys, blow.

If only they were fantasies.
posted by jfuller at 7:23 PM on February 10, 2010


I feel about this the same way I feel about a lot of canonical gangsta rap - I just love the way it sounds but I can't get my head around the sense of it
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:05 PM on February 10, 2010


Looks like V.L. wrote "The Congo" around 1914/15. That's earlier than I had imagined, since the reading in the second link is from 1931. Although V.L. was white, I had figured based on the flowery Afrophilia of the poem that it was closer to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s, i.e. to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Duke Ellington's Black and Tan Fantasy.

Also, FWIW, from Wiki:

...many contemporaries and later critics have contended over whether a couple of Lindsay's poems should be seen as homages to African and African-American music, as perpetuation of the "savage African" stereotype, or as both. DuBois, before reading and praising "the Golden-Faced People," wrote in a review of Lindsay's "Booker T. Washington Trilogy" that "Lindsay knows two things, and two things only, about Negroes: The beautiful rhythm of their music and the ugly side of their drunkards and outcasts. From this poverty of material he tries now and then to make a contribution to Negro literature." DuBois also criticized "The Congo," which has been the most persistent focus of the criticisms of racial stereotyping in Lindsay's work.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 8:57 PM on February 10, 2010


In sixth or seventh grade (1972 or '73), the speech teacher of my middle school would have us recite the first nine lines of this poem as a warm up. Years later, when I remembered it, I wondered what on earth she was thinking. The memory was made even more incongruous because, when she gave us an assignment to recite a song as poetry, she chose to read I Am Woman as an example.
posted by idiolect at 9:37 PM on February 10, 2010


W.E.B. Du Bois hit the nail on the head in the seventh link up there. "Mr. Lindsay knows little of the Negro, and that little is dangerous."
posted by moss at 9:56 PM on February 10, 2010


(Not that I mean to dismiss the poetry, mind you).
posted by moss at 9:57 PM on February 10, 2010


But it's way too early for the Congo.
posted by Danf at 10:25 AM on February 11, 2010


I seem to recall reading somewhere about the difficulty of translating Pindar from the ancient Greek. As in there is no poetry in Pindar in translation but in the Greek, he rocks like Vachel Lindsay.

But, now, upon using the powers of Google, I find myself saying the same thing in what languagehat once called the best.thread.evar. Or something like that. It was indeed a good thread.

But I have yet to track down that quote about Pindar and Lindsay.
posted by y2karl at 3:33 PM on February 11, 2010


I swear that I thought it was a modern parody of ridiculous racist notions when I read it. I'm kind of boggled to realize it's actually the thing itself and not a literary poetic Onion poem.
posted by Scattercat at 7:28 PM on February 11, 2010


W. E. B. Du Bois strongly criticized "The Congo"; but Lindsay's story "The Golden-Faced People" had been published in an earlier issue of The Crisis and was hailed by Du Bois himself for its insight into the injustice of racism, so Lindsay does not appear to have been irremediably racist in outlook. Lindsay was in fact widely regarded as a person of liberal and antiracist sympathies, evident not least in Lindsay's famous "discovery" of Langston Hughes as a busboy poet in a Washington, DC, hotel restaurant. The event was misconstrued by Lindsay as an instance of genuine patronage--that, but for Lindsay's intervention, Hughes would have forever languished as a menial laborer--when actually, by the time of the incident in 1925, Hughes had already been published in The Crisis, would win the poetry prize in the Opportunity literary competition of that year, and had had his first book, The Weary Blues, already accepted by Alfred A. Knopf. It was Hughes himself, not Lindsay, who was the prime mover of his career, right down to the moment in the hotel restaurant when Hughes took the initiative, dropping a sheaf of his poems on Lindsay's table. Yet Lindsay was the right poet for Hughes to seek out, open-minded enough to appreciate the poems: he recited all three of them at his poetry reading that evening and thereupon announced the discovery of a "bona fide poet". And Hughes was happy enough to make use of the publicity served up by Lindsay's naive claim of discovery. The next day he played up the role of the dazzled prodigy for the reporters who hounded him, and upon his return to New York he arranged for an Underwood and Underwood representative to photograph him posing as a busboy. In turn, the literati associated with Opportunity, always tending to be more open and flexible in their conceptions of artistic expression than their peers at The Crisis, do not appear to have been overly chagrined by Lindsay's rhetoric or purportedly racist poetry, as in 1926 they made Lindsay one of the judges for the magazine's second literary contest and even mentioned The Congo and Other Poems among the accomplishments qualifying him for the role...

In the 1920s, at least, Du Bois's political assumptions fundamentally shaped the debate; the exponents of the more experimental, black writing like Claude McKay and Langston Hughes did not assert its superior cultural politics, as we might today, but its superior artistry--the wider range of expression possible, the greater possibilities of form and language. When Carl Van Vechten, a major promoter of black writers, published his novel Nigger Heaven in 1926, his portrayal of black Harlem was immediately attacked by political critics in the black community as a racist white performance in blackface; it was just as swiftly defended by the literary avant garde in the community as a feat of literary imagination. In this context--and among writers of the avant garde like Hughes--Vachel Lindsay's poetry on black subject matter and appropriating black voices did not appear so far out of place. Lindsay did not thus appear an inappropriate choice to be one of the judges for the 1926 Opportunity contest. Likewise, the inclusion of "The Congo" in Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps's landmark anthology, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, makes sense, even if it may now be jarring. Long after there was any mileage to be made of his "discovery" by Lindsay, Hughes chose to include him in the section of "Tributary Poems by Non-Negroes." "The Congo" appears, as well, in the revised edition appearing in 1970, so Bontemps, who lived to supervise the publication of this edition, apparently concurred with Hughes's choice.
Lindsay and Racism

If only it were so easy to condemn and belittle Vachel Lindsay and The Congo out of hand--but nothing is so simple. Above, we see that one W.E.B. DuBois lauded Lindsay in another context and printed his work in his newspaper The Crisis and Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps included The Congo in their anthology The Poetry of The Negro. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps recognized Lindsay, however ignorant they thought him to be, as a friend to their race. And, for all of its flaws of stereotype, myth and received opinions on race, Hughes and Bontemps could appreciate The Congo for the sheer music of its lines.

A thought experiment ought to be what would be printed in the equivalent of The Onion of 1915. Now, that would likely be so flat out and viciously racist as to curl one's hair.
posted by y2karl at 8:15 PM on February 11, 2010


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