The bass player picked and strummed, the crowd snapped their fingers and the California poet laureate showed off a singer's voice Friday night.
More than 100 teenagers, senior citizens, couples and middle-aged singles packed the Del Norte County Public Library to hear Al Young read from his "Coastal Nights and Inland Afternoons."
Young recalled interviews, books, movies, musicals and musicians, explaining the scenes where he set his poems the King's real-life search for enlightenment, for instance, in "The Elvis I Knew Well Was Spiritual."
The tall, black poet recalled the music of the 1950s and teenage dances at rec rooms in his "Doo-Wop: The Moves," along with white peoples' calls to ban negro music.
He also urged listeners to pay attention to their language.
A dead society now uses dead language, Young said, noting such terms as "collateral damage" and politicians who proclaim that soldiers have died for just and noble causes.
"It's absolutely meaningless," the 67-year-old Young said, calling his term as poet laureate a mission to remind the public of their words. "Enter poetry. Poetry freshens our language, the way that we read words on the page and read with our hearts and our souls."
He recalled the McCarthy era with his poem "Shirley Embracing Sam, 1952," shouting the phrase, "Are you now or have you ever been?"
"I grew up watching people not say anything and we're in such a time again," Young told the crowd.
He noted a long period after World War II when Germans distrusted the words of their government leaders because of the nazis' corruption of the German language.
"When times are really dark, like these, poetry surfaces," Young said, pointing to Dylan Thomas, Langston Hughes and the beat generation poets who came out of the 1950s, along music, drama, painting and dance. "These are the true treasures of any society. We're not remembered for our armies and navies."