Bob Dylan And The Beat Poetry Of Vachel Lindsay


by Larry Fyffe

The spoken Romantic ‘Beat Poetry’ of Vachel Lindsay, a social conservative who thinks of America as a decadent Babylon, presents black Africans and American ‘Indians’ as ‘noble savages’ from another world.

He contrasts the ideals that human beings in modern America claim they aspire to with the reality of their actions, a thematic path down which singer/songwriter Bob Dylan wanders:

Last night at black midnight I woke with a cry
The windows were shaking, there was thunder on high
The floor was atremble, the door was ajar
White fires, crimson fires, shone from afar
I rushed to the dooryard. The city was gone
My home was a hut without orchard or lawn
It was mud smear and logs near a whispering stream
Nothing else built by man could I see in my dream
(Vachel Lindsay: The Ghosts Of The Buffaloes)

Likewise below, imagery of a simpler time, with ‘hogs’ replacing Vachel’s ‘logs’:

I got a house on a hill, I got hogs all out in the mud
I got a house on a hill, I got hogs out lying in the mud
I got a long-haired woman, she got royal Indian blood
(Bob Dylan: Summer Days)

The song presents the theme that the burden of resonsibility for the welfare of others has been more and more shifted from the shoulders of individuals to those of God and Government – farther from the dream of an Eden-on-Earth drift the thoughts of modern man:

I am unjust, but I can strive for justice
My life’s unkind, but I can vote for kindness
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness
(Vachel Lindsay: Why I Voted The Socialist Ticket)

Hypocritical officialdom, rather than powerless individuals, gets lots of the blame in song following:

You fasten the trigger
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count get higher
You hide in your mansion
As the young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud
(Bob Dylan: Masters Of War)

The theme occurs in the following poem:

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost
This is the sin no purging can atone
To send forth repine in the name of Christ
To set the face, and make the heart of stone
(Vachel Lindsay: The Unpardonable Sin)

That theme echoes in the next song by Bob Dylan, but there is also implied the refusal to accept responsibility for his/her own behaviour on the part of the individual who’s got little power:

Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side
(Bob Dylan: With God On Our Side)

Dogmatically religious, Vachel Lindsay dislikes jazz and blues music even as he uses those music styles to get his ‘good old days’ conservative message across to Jazz Age audiences:

When Jezebel put on her tiaras and looked grand
Her three-piece pajamas and her diamond bosom-band
And stopped the honest prophets as they marched
upon their way
And slaughtered them and hung them in her hearty
wholesale way
She liked her wicked chops
As she pulled out the stops
And she ordered the saxaphones to play
(Vachel Lindsay: The Curse Of The Saxaphone)

Dylan paints a surrealistic picture of Babylonian America under the sway of Jezebel riding upon her golden calf:

The ghost of Belle Starr, she hands down her wits
To Jezebel the nun, she violently knits
A bald wig for Jack the Ripper, who sits
At the head of the Chamber of Commerce
(Bob Dylan: Tombstone Blues)

Bob Dylan ĺooks at the darker side of America, particularly it’s institution of slavery, through the watery eyes of poet Walt Whitman. Dylan holds on to the possibility of a moral healing in the future though it’s fading fast in the face of modern-day economic and political reality:

Gunshot wound to the breast
Is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon
He’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better
He’s already dead
(Bob Dylan: ‘Cross The Green Mountain)

In his blighted Romantic poetry, Walt Whitman writes:

Sentences broken, ‘Gunshot wound to the breast
Cavalry skirmish, taken to hospital
At present low, but soon will be better’ ….
Alas poor boy, he will never be better ….
(Walt Whitman: Come Up From The Fields Father)

What is on the site

1: Over 400 reviews of Dylan songs.  There is an index to these in alphabetical order on the home page, and an index to the songs in the order they were written in the Chronology Pages.

2: The Chronology.  We’ve taken all the songs we can find recordings of and put them in the order they were written (as far as possible) not in the order they appeared on albums.  The chronology is more or less complete and is now linked to all the reviews on the site.  We have also recently started to produce overviews of Dylan’s work year by year.     The index to the chronologies is here.

3: Bob Dylan’s themes.  We publish a wide range of articles about Bob Dylan and his compositions.  There is an index here.

4:   The Discussion Group    We now have a discussion group “Untold Dylan” on Facebook.  Just type the phrase “Untold Dylan” in, on your Facebook page or follow this link 

5:  Bob Dylan’s creativity.   We’re fascinated in taking the study of Dylan’s creative approach further.  The index is in Dylan’s Creativity.

6: You might also like: A classification of Bob Dylan’s songs and partial Index to Dylan’s Best Opening Lines

And please do note   The Bob Dylan Project, which lists every Dylan song in alphabetical order, and has links to licensed recordings and performances by Dylan and by other artists, is starting to link back to our reviews.


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