Friday, 28 May 2010

The Daniel Jazz

I was reading John Hayes' blog, Robert Frost's Banjo the other day. A remark he made about the relationship between poetry and music sparked off a train of thought and I found myself thinking, for the first time in years, of The Daniel Jazz. Does everybody do this poem at school? We did.

Vachel Lindsay came from Springfield, Illinois. Like Bart Simpson, you might well be thinking. (A bit of a digression: I once had a long chat with an American radio amateur, Jon, NB0X, about this. He was from Springfield, Missouri. He said that there were many Springfields in the US, and every Springfieldonian could cite an episode of the Simpsons to proved that their Springfield was the Springfield. Jon was forever having long chats with European amateurs and made many friends over the air. I remember him telling me how he was into all things English and how another UK ham had sent him some tea from Harrogate (not far from here). He claimed he couldn't find any Rich Tea biscuits in the US and had baked his own to eat with his tea. He said he'd searched the internet for the recipe). Was he joking? I explained to him that Rich Tea biscuits were what the English ate with their tea as a last resort. Jon was a great character. However, he and I were very unalike, hardly likely to give each other the time of day, were we not radio amateurs. When he died -aged 46- I learnt from his obituary that he had been awarded the Medal of Merit by George Bush for his services to the Republican Presidential Task Force. One of the great things about amateur radio is that discussion of politics on air is taboo).

Anyway, back to Vachel Lindsay. Could he have laid claim to being the first rapper? Like most people who come across him at school I was surprised to discover he was white: he was, though ideosyncratic, in many ways champion of the cause of African Americans, although some of what he wrote (The Congo, for example) certainly raises eyebrows today (Lindsay himself, apparently, came to be uncomfortable with it). Lindsay said of his own poetry:

Mr. Yeats [WB - a fan] asked me recently in Chicago, 'What are we going to do to
restore the primitive singing of poetry?' I find what Mr. Yeats means
by 'the primitive singing of poetry' in Professor Edward Bliss Reed's
new volume on 'The English Lyric'. He says in his chapter on the
definition of the lyric: 'With the Greeks "song" was an all-embracing
term. It included the crooning of the nurse to the child... the
half-sung chant of the mower or sailor... the formal ode sung by the poet.
In all Greek lyrics, even in the choral odes, music was the handmaid of
verse.... The poet himself composed the accompaniment. Euripides was
censured because Iophon had assisted him in the musical setting of some
of his dramas.' Here is pictured a type of Greek work which survives in
American vaudeville, where every line may be two-thirds spoken and
one-third sung, the entire rendering, musical and elocutionary, depending
upon the improvising power and sure instinct of the performer.

I respectfully submit these poems as experiments in which I endeavor to
carry this vaudeville form back towards the old Greek precedent of the
half-chanted lyric. In this case the one-third of music must be added
by the instinct of the reader. He must be Iophon. And he can easily be
Iophon if he brings to bear upon the piece what might be called the
Higher Vaudeville imagination....

Big general contrasts between the main sections should be the rule of
the first attempts at improvising. It is the hope of the writer that
after two or three readings each line will suggest its own separate
touch of melody to the reader who has become accustomed to the cadences.
Let him read what he likes read, and sing what he likes sung.

And so, to the poetry itself:


Let the leader train the audience to roar like lions, and
to join in the refrain " Go chain the lions down"
before he begins to lead them in this jazz.

Darius the Mede was a king and a wonder.
His eye was proud, and his voice was thunder.
He kept bad lions in a monstrous den.
He fed up the lions on Christian men.

Daniel was the chief hired man of the land.
He stirred up the jazz in the palace band,
He whitewashed the cellar. He shovelled in the coal.
And Daniel kept a-praying : "Lord save my soul."
Daniel kept a-praying "Lord save my soul."
Daniel kept a-praying "Lord save my soul."

Daniel was the butler, swagger and swell.
He ran up stairs, He answered the bell.
And he would let in whoever came a-calling:
Saints so holy, scamps so appalling.
"Old man Ahab leaves his card.
Elisha and the bears are a-waiting in the yard.
Here comes Pharaoh and his snakes a-calling.
Here comes Cain and his wife a-calling.
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego for tea.
Here comes Jonah and the whale,
And the Sea!
Here comes St. Peter and his fishing pole.
Here comes Judas and his silver a-calling.
Here comes old Beelzebub a-calling."
And Daniel kept a-praying : "Lord save my soul'
Daniel kept a-praying : "Lord save my soul."
Daniel kept a-praying : "Lord save my soul."

His sweetheart and his mother were Christian and meek.
They washed and ironed for Darius every week.
One Thursday he met them at the door:
Paid them as usual, but acted sore.

He said : -"Your Daniel is a dead little pigeon.
He's a good hard worker, but he talks religion."
And he showed them Daniel in the lion's cage.
Daniel standing quietly, the lions in a rage.

His good old mother cried:
"Lord save him."
And Daniel's tender sweetheart cried:
"Lord save him."

And she was a golden lily in the dew.
And she was as sweet as an apple on the tree
And she was as fine as a melon in the corn-field,
Gliding and lovely as a ship on the sea,
Gliding and lovely as a ship on the sea.

And she prayed to the Lord :
"Send Gabriel. Send Gabriel."

King Darius said to the lions :
"Bite Daniel. Bite Daniel.
Bite him. Bite him. Bite him !"

Thus roared the lions :
"We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel,
We want Daniel, Daniel, Daniel.

And Daniel did not frown,
Daniel did not cry.
He kept on looking at the sky.
And the Lord said to Gabriel:
"Go chain the lions down,
Go chain the lions down.
Go chain the lions down.
Go chain the lions down."

And Gabriel chained the lions,
And Gabriel chained the lions,
And Gabriel chained the lions,
And Daniel got out of the den,
And Daniel got out of the den,
And Daniel got out of the den.
And Darius said : "You're a Christian child,"
Darius said : "you're a Christian child,"
Darius said : "You're a Christian child,"
And gave him his job again,
And gave him his job again,
And gave him his job again.

You can read more of Vachel Lindsay's poems at Project Gutenburg. The Santa Fe Trail has some wonderful passages in it, for a start (it starts at the foot of page 9). For example:

My goal is the mystery the beggars win.
I am caught in the web the night-winds spin.
The edge of the wheat-ridge speaks to me.
I talk with the leaves of the mulberry tree.
And now I hear, as I sit all alone
In the dusk, by another big Santa Fe stone,
The souls of the tall corn gathering round
And the gay little souls of the grass in the ground.
Listen to the tale the cotton-wood tells.
Listen to the wind-mills, singing o'er the wells.
Listen to the whistling flutes without price
Of myriad prophets out of paradise.

You can read more about Vachel Lindsay here.


Argent said...

Yikes!!! I remember this - or do I? Our school choir did a song that started the same way as this but after the first verse I don't recognise anything here. I can still remember the tune of it and some of the words "she was as fine, as fine, as a melon in a cornfield, golden and lovely as a ship on the sea" Melon in a cornfield? Seriously? The first verse had a hugely long note at the end of some of the lines "Mede", for instance would be about 100 bars long (seemed like that, anyway). Heh, the memories!

The Weaver of Grass said...

I taught that to so many children during my years in teaching - done well it is a very moving piece. There is something very good indeed about spoken choir - thanks for the background.

Rachel Fenton said...

They didn't teach that to me in school! I cannot remember any of the poems we must have been taught in school! Was I there? I remember Cider With Rosie though and Of Mice and Men and The Machine Gunner and the Machine Stops...maybe we only did novels..

Rachel Fox said...

Never heard of this one! All that song stuff though...well, yes...of course!

patteran said...

This is weird. Someone else recently blogged about Vachell Lindsay, speculating that he was, in a sense, the first rapper, but - anaesthetic flashback, senior moment or early onset dementia - I can't remember who!

So it's with an overwhelming sense of deja ecrit that I agree that, yes, I guess that claim might be made, but that we must take into account Slim Gaillard, Lord Buckley and the Last Poets as linking points. And I must add that - coincidentally for the second time - a month or two back I bought an English first edition of 'The Daniel Jazz and Other Poems' on Amazon.

This is going to bother me until I locate the other post.

John Hayes said...

Dick: I think it may have been Bill's comment on RFBanjo that he refers to here.

As far as Lindsay goes, I see him as one of the many problematic early 20th c. poets. There's no doubt that what he did was innovative in that he brought a sort of jazz jargon (i.e., at the time, distinctly African American) to popular poetry aimed at white audiences. Still, the verbal traditions he was drawing on--some might say, co-opting--pre-date him by many years & are much more likely to be the more direct ancestors of rap & hip-hop--African-American traditions like the dirty dozens, wuffing & signifying. As you point out, Bill, his racial views were themselves complicated & often troubling--tho he was seen as a champion of African-Americans in his own time, some of his poetry--noptably "The Congo" can be filled with quite alarming stereotypes. Another place to look (among many) for rap origins in literature would be poetry of the Harlem Renaissance & especially, I would say, Langston Hughes.

But an interesting post. I'd never read "The Daniel Jazz," so I appreciate your posting it & opening up a fascinating discussion.

Dominic Rivron said...

Argent: I never sang it, just recited it, as I remember. The melons are Vachel Lindsay's - they sound a bit song of songs to me, although that book's erotic fruit of choice is the pomegranite, as I remember.

WG: It is good, isn't it?

RF: The Machine Stops! There's a short story to conjour with! I blogged about it a bit ago...

RF: Never hear of it? I hoped someone who visited wouldn't have! It's such fun to discover it.

patteran: lol! It was probably me in one or two comments boxes recently. Deja ecrit. I must remember that. I get it a lot.

JH: Thanks for these thoughts and background. (I started to look into American vaudeville, the influence VL himself refers to - but I don't know a lot about it, and a little learning is a dangerous thing). Pleased the DJ was new to you. As I said above -in effect- I didn't dare hope people wouldn't know it!

As for the racism aspect, I think the evidence, as I read it, is that his heart was in the right place. He was alarmed by the way people took The Congo, felt uneasy about it himself on reflection and preferred not to recite it in later years, apparently.

Titus said...

Really interesting post Dominic, and so many threads to consider. Have to come back when my mind's actually working.
Choric verse.

Rachel Fenton said...

Thanks for the link - will give it a squidge now :)

Get Off My Lawn! said...

Interesting. I have never heard of the poem. But the comments made about greek lyric tradition, I wonder about their obsession with pure form. If you used a particular mode in the wrong place or for a wrong purpose... if a character did not conform to specific conventions... if the plot wasn't just so... they didn't even consider it authentic. This constant attempt to perfect a formula in order to pusue some high and divine form of art was kind of limiting. Stifled creativity and artistic growth for centuries. Although drawing from the past to capture a certain element can be admirable and worthy, we must be careful not to fall into the Greek trap of defining high and low art as a measurable an calculable thing. As much as we owe to the Greek traditions, I want my tragedy to include Leonard from Memento (Guy Pierce), who does not follow conventions of a tragic hero at all. Aristotle would not approve. I think its brilliant.

patteran said...

Christ, how embarassing! Is there such a thing as a sort of prolonged senior time sequence that falls between senior moment and outright doolallydom?

Ann ODyne said...

back in the 1960's I saw on television a disciple of Lord Buckley refer to his style as 'talking jazz'.
I cannot imagine that anybody who heard him came away from it without loving him.
All vocalised music is poetry 'sung', surely?
*runs away trying to obliterate Anarchy In The UK from mind*

the watercats said...

Never did this poem.. and it's fecking great! It reminds me of the poem we sang as a song (the jesse james song), has the same structure and pace... I must admit I'm a sucker for this type of poem

Poetikat said...

I missed this the first time around. I think you mentioned it in a comment on mine, but I hadn't a clue what it was. I still don't, but it certainly is a powerful piece.


psychelatte said...

My school choir DID sing this! And i remember how the tunes went as well..really lovely at times and otherwise just fun. I am trying to find a recording of it but i dont think i will...