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When Baraka Blows His Horn
Concerning Somebody Blew Up America

By Anthony Olszewski
Copyright 2004

We heard him blow then, long and strong, . . . , he'd play chorus after chorus, taking the music apart before our ears, splintering the chords and sounding each note, resounding it, playing it backwards and upside down trying to get something else."
Amiri Baraka on John Coltrane, Autobiography

I've left as an exercise for the reader the autopsy of the controversy surrounding Amiri Baraka's stint as New Jersey's Poet Laureate. Here, I probe for what the sounds signify. As a minimal effort, it is necessary to read the poem aloud. Don't stop there. DO take advantage of the video Link above. Amiri Baraka starts off with a drumming boomboom boomba chant that's not indicated in the text. The same chant is used as a background sound at the beginning of the poem.

Does Baraka make any sense at all? Does Somebody Blew Up America consist only of hooting and hollered curses? Fascinating, at one and the same time, that's completely false and completely true.

You made your great mistake when you abandonded the poetry business, and set up shop as a wizard in general practice.
H. L. Mencken, in a letter to Ezra Pound, 1936

Ezra Pound, for a time, gave up being a great artist to serve as a shill for Mussolini. Pound yimmered and yammered up the airwaves with confused and venomous economic and social ideas. Leni Riefenstahl projected her cinematic vision of a new Roman Empire onto Hitler and his underlings. Riefenstahl knew from her earliest efforts that if you control perspective, you control perception. Riefenstahl was not confused; she was the master trickster. With Amiri Baraka we've a situation different from either Mussolini's radio announcer or Hitler's film producer. Baraka remains a great poet. At the same time, he's amassed a great pile of wooden nickel wild speculations that won't buy you a ride on the PATH subway. As will be discussed later, Baraka might have had a specific political purpose in mind -- a very limited one definitely lacking the scope of either the would-be propagandist Pound or the great propagandist Riefenstahl.

. . .

Who you know ever
Seen God?

But everybody seen
The Devil

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog

Like the acid vomit of the fire of Hell
Who and Who and WHO (+) who who ^
Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!

From Somebody Blew Up America

Nonetheless, these howling exclamations, enunciated in a broken and strange idiom, are juxtaposed with the traces of a memory that gains its force from its intrusive silence.
Patrick Roney, African American Review, Vol. 37, Nos.2-3

Somebody Blew Up America actually is two poems. The last four stanzas are a description of the the destruction of the World Trade Center. There's the enormous fireball that sears the mind with the release of a great truth. (I'd add the issuing forth of a new history -- like Athena from her burning temple at Troy.) The explosion is followed by the falling torrents of debris to the accompaniement of great thundering roars and sirens. This final soundtrack of destruction serves as the climax of the repetition of WHO throughout the first part of the poem -- like a cacophonous crescendo of horns. This and the vision of the irresistable truth, the exploding owl (WHO is the call of the owl), bind the two pieces together into an organic whole. A roaring inhuman voice as a dynamic expression of the African-American experience is a theme that Baraka has used before.

The major portion of Somebody Blew Up America is the production of a "print" using Vachel Lindsay's The Congo as the negative. This 1914 one man minstrel show manages to put on stage every false stereotype of both Africans and African-Americans. To offset Lindsay's pyrotechnic racist rant, Baraka gives us a panoramic display of White atrocities.

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,
[A deep rolling bass.]
Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,
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.
[More deliberate. Solemnly chanted.]
THEN I SAW THE CONGO, CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK,
CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST 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
[A rapidly piling climax of speed and racket.]
And a thigh-bone beating on a tin-pan gong.
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,"
[With a philosophic pause.]
A roaring, epic, rag-time tune
From the mouth of the Congo
To the Mountains of the Moon.
Death is an Elephant,
[Shrilly and with a heavily accented metre.]
Torch-eyed and horrible,
Foam-flanked and terrible.
BOOM, steal the pygmies,
BOOM, kill the Arabs,
BOOM, kill the white men,
HOO, HOO, HOO.
. . .

And the gray sky opened like a new-rent veil
And showed the apostles with their coats of mail.
In bright white steele 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: --
[Sung to the tune of "Hark, ten thousand harps and voices".]
"Mumbo-Jumbo will die in the jungle;
Never again will he hoo-doo you,
Never again will he hoo-doo you."

. . .

From The Congo, by Vachel Lindsay, 1914

LeRoi Jone's jazz writing "too obviously smacks of a kind of 'in-group' superiority . . . ." Does Jones write on jazz "because he loves the music and wants to help it and its practitioners , knows the music and feels he has something to say, or if he feels that by stirring up 'controversies' his name will become synonymous with those he constantly champions, thereby creating a niche in the world of jazz for himself"
Jass trumpeter, Bill Dixin, Down Beat, 1964, quoted by John Gennari in Baraka's Bohemian Blues, African American Review, Vol. 37, Nos. 2-3

Sadly, for the most part, these Western barbaric acts are facts. Baraka ruins his own case by extending the argument into the realm of conspiracy theory. I speculate that he's done this for two reasons: Baraka didn't want to espouse an unpopular cause and he wanted to use the poem as a tool in New Jersey politics.

Strangely enough, Baraka was trying to play it safe! Vachel Lindsay provides salvation literally out of the blue through the intervention of the apostles. It would have been easier for Baraka to maintain the correspondence between The Congo and Somebody Blew Up American by having retribution for oppression arrive out of the blue through the mechanism of the suicide jet crash. Just after 9/11 here and there a few dissonant voices did pipe up in feeble cheers for the supposed victims of imperialism. Failing to achieve any sort of audience among the population at large, these off-key singers quietly and quickly exited the stage. It seems that the only one brave (or crazy) enough to persist in expressing this view is Bobby Fischer. Also, it soon was obvious that the entire weight of society was moving to dislodge Osama Bin Laden and his organization from Afghanistan. Baraka likes to be the center of attention by being different. But, he didn't want to be so strange as to wind up universally condemned or -- even worse -- ignored. Collecting and amplifying the chords of conspiracy bouncing around the globe was the way to go. Many elements of the Left were denouncing "Zionism" in terms that would have made Pound proud. And after all, as one theorist of pop culture -- Goebbels -- pointed out, you just can't lose with a Big Lie.

In the second stanza of the poem, Amiri Baraka puts Bret Schundler in the company of David Duke and Jesse Helms. Bret Schundler was Mayor of Jersey City for a decade. Jersey City is just one station away from Newark on the PATH subway. Amiri Baraka spoke in Jersey City at least once while Schundler was Mayor. For the previous forty years, the entrenched political organization let the African-American neighborhoods of Jersey City die and rot. Under the leadership of Bret Schundler, major redevelopment projects reversed this decay. So why would Baraka lump Schundler in with two White supremacists? Baraka might have been trying to make his piece "relevant." At the time of 9/11, Bret Schundler was running for Governor. By mentioning him, Baraka gives the poem an urban New Jersey connection. This ploy also could have had the efffect of assisting the Newark Democratic machine in its efforts to install McGreevey in Trenton.

It's nation time.

Boom
Booom
BOOOM

Dadadadadadadadadadad
Boom
Boom
Boom
Boom
Dadadadad adadadad

Baraka, It's Nation Time, 1970

The boomboom that is so vital . . . is a human vitality . . .
Daniel Won-gu Kim, African American Review, Vol. 37, Nos. 2-3
Lindsay uses a series of BOOMs from primitive drums to indicate savagery. Throughout his work Baraka uses drum sounds as timing (just like in music) and as the audible expression of life -- like a heartbeat. Though not indicated in the text, in videos of performances of Somebody Blew Up America, Baraka does use a repeated, drumming boom sound. Baraka's use of the Boom sound is similar to Lindsay's in that both refer to drums, but are very different in meaning.

Baraka needed a different repeated sound for the inversion. The savage and diabolic HOO is perfect for this purpose. Lindsay uses HOO and hoo-doo to express mindless hooting and backward superstition. Baraka implements Who as a verbal tool wielded by a keen mind questioning and attacking imperialism.

The repeated Who serves as a hard horn sound like that used by John Coltrane. As mentioned before, the wise questioning Who acts as a keystone for the arcing image of the exploding owl (oil). Also, the constant Who leads into and presages the sound of the avalanche of debris / horn climax at the end.

Baraka often has written of the idea of "magic words" -- words that immediately lead to action and transform reality. (A judge once confirmed this theory by tossing Amiri Baraka into jail for inciting a riot.) So instead of a superstitious hoo-doo, the Who invokes and connects with essential reality.

The important case to Baraka is hard bebop's agressive anti-assimilative honking (Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane) against Western hegemonic musicality.
Daniel Won-gu Kim, African American Review, Vol. 37, Nos. 2-3
Who blew up America? Now's the time to assign an answer to that question. In the same way that John Coltrane used a metallic pneumatic voice to investigate and blow up "My Favorite Things," Amiri Baraka uses his trademark "magic words."

Coltrane takes a weak Western form, a popular song ["Nature Boy," "My Favorite Things"], and murders it; that is, he mutilates and disembowels this shallow but bouncy tune by using discordant and agressive sounds to attack and destroy the melody line.
Harris, William, The Poetry and Poetics of Amiri Baraka: The Jazz Aesthetic, 1985

References:

  • African American Review, Vol. 37, Nos. 2-3, 2003, Saint Louis University

  • DuPlessis, Rachel Blau, 2001, Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry 1908–1934, Cambridge University Press

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