John Wilkes Booth in Hell
Springfield Illinois poet, Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), grew up in the same town where Lincoln lived with his wife, Mary, and their children, until he became President-elect in 1861 and told the citizens of Springfield on February 11, 1861:
“Here I have lived a quarter of a century and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born and one is buried …”
But it was a little more personal to Vachel Lindsay. His childhood home was built in 1846 and was owned by Mary Todd Lincoln’s sister, Ann Marie and husband, Clark Moulton Smith. Abraham and Mary Lincoln attended parties at their home. A gala reception was held for the Lincolns at the Smith home before the Presidential inauguration and their departure for Washington. Clark Smith also set up a private place in one of his stores where Lincoln could work on his inaugural address before leaving Springfield.
As a young boy living in a home where Abraham Lincoln was a close relative by marriage of the former owners and an integral part of its history, learning about the 16th President and the Civil War had to make a deeper impact on the artistic and creative Vachel, who would one day become the Father of Singing Poetry.
In that light, there’s small wonder why Vachel Lindsay may have sensed the presence of Lincoln’s ghost long before he wrote his famous poem: “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” —
Or by his homestead,
or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on
the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.
But Honest Abe wasn’t the only one who found his way into Vachel Lindsay’s poetry. Vachel Lindsay hated the saxophone and, while a later generation would equate Elvis Presley and rock and roll with the devil’s music, Vachel had John Wilkes Booth playing the saxophone in hell in this excerpt from his poem, “A Curse for the Saxophone“, before Elvis was even born —
When John Wilkes Booth shot
Lincoln the good,
He hid himself in a deep Potomac wood,
But the Devil came and got him and
dragged him below,
And took him to the gate —
and the rest you know,
Twenty thousand pigs on their hind legs playing
“The Beale Street Blues” and swaying and saying:–
“John Wilkes Booth, you are welcome to Hell,”
And they played it on the saxophone and played it well.
And he picked up a saxophone, grunting and rasping,
The red-hot horn in his hot hands clasping,
And he played a typical radio jazz;
He started an earthquake, he knew what for,
And at last he started the late World War.
Our nerves all razzed, and our thoughts all jazzed,
Booth and his saxophone started the war!
According to Vachel Lindsay, only an assassin could dig the saxophone.
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