9th Ward Daily Photo via rl reeves jr

New Orleans native Bob Kaufman aka the Original Bebop Man was thrown into a San Francisco jail 39 times in 1959. His crimes? Reciting his poetry on the streets. He got tossed in the can so frequently that his friends kept a tip jar on hand emblazoned with “Bob Kaufman bail fund.”

Robert Garnell Kaufman, the author of Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness was born on this day in 1925.

One of 13 children, as a young teen Kaufman ran away from home, and joined the Merchant Marines to set off for a life of adventure. His first job was as cabin boy on the ship the Henry Gibbons. Bob circled the globe as a sailor for 20 years before semi-settling down in the North Beach area of San Francisco where he met and fell in love with Eileen Singe.

On their first date they hung out for hours at the late night Hot Dog Palace, and Kaufman eventually announced:

You are my woman. You have no choice in the matter

Thankfully Singe acquiesced.

To get away from being hassled by the man in San Francisco, Kaufman, and family migrated to New York City in 1961. The folk scene was about to explode, and the setting could not have been better for the itinerant poet. He landed on his feet and befriended Dave Van Ronk and even wrote the lyrics to Ronk’s Green Green Rocky Road

But just two years into enjoying his new home, Kaufman was arrested for “walking on the grass” at Washington Square Park, the 10 acre green space in Greenwich Village had become a gathering place for exiles, poets, musicians, beatniks and outcasts, and the police were determined to make their hangout as uncomfortable as possible.

Bob Kaufman was committed to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital where he underwent electro-shock treatments. It would completely change his life.

After his stint at Bellevue, Kaufman set out and returned to North Beach. Barely a week after his arrival President Kennedy was assassinated and Bob was so shook up that he took a monk-like vow of silence that lasted for over a decade.

True to his word, at the end of this dark period Kaufman strolled into a coffee shop, clambered upon a table and recited:

All those ships that never sailed
The ones with their seacocks open
That were scuttled in their stalls …
Today I bring them back
Huge and transitory
And let them sail
Forever.

“He often seems to be overlooked when people discuss African American poets, partly because he’s a Beat writer. And he often seems to be left out of a lot of Beat history because he was a Black writer.” Poet Harryette Mullen speaking on Kaufman.

Beloved in France Kaufman was referred to as “the black Rimbaud.” but he was mostly ignored in his native New Orleans.

I’ve brought his name up at a barroom that I hang out at in in the Treme neighborhood where generations of his family have dwelled and I’ve always been met with a blank stare.

Kaufman: “I want to be anonymous. My ambition is to be completely forgotten.”

Among scholars and poets he’s anything but forgotten but his wish has certainly been fulfilled among the general public.

Pull out that faded old copy of Does the Secret Mind Whisper? and put on a Béla Bartók or Charlie Parker Lp, and dream of the life of this great man today.

Or if you prefer, watch Billy Woodberry’s somewhat uneven documentary on Kaufman, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead where the viewer gets to hear Amiri Baraka call Kaufman “the maximum beatnik … the most uncompromising, most principled, [making] no concessions to bourgeois culture.”

Bob Kaufman died of pulmonary emphysema in January of 1986 at the age of 60

Pale morning light, dying in shadows, loving the earth in midday rays, casting blue to skies in rings, sowing powder trails across balconies. Hung in evening to swing gently, on shoulders of time, growing old, yet swallowing events of a thousand nights of dying and loving…

In an old foreword to one of his collections it reads thusly:

“His Jewish surname and Creole-like features, were shared with twelve brothers and sisters . . . Up until his death from emphysema in January of 1986, Kaufman was known as a mostly silent, wiry black man who walked the streets of San Francisco’s North Beach district day and night, often appearing as a mendicant, madman, or panhandler. Yet various schools of American poetry have sung his praises.”

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Sources:

Blows Like a Horn: Beat Writing, Jazz, Style, and Markets in the … By Preston Whaley
Notes to Make the Sound Come Right Four Innovators of Jazz Poetry By T. J. Anderson
Louisiana Poets: A Literary Guide by Catharine Savage Brosman
Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature: Hans A. Ostrom, ‎J. David Macey
Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness by Bob Kaufman

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