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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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The Immigrants (update)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 31, 2019

A note from Nonesuch Records that Gaby Moreno and Van Dyke Parks’s album ¡Spangled! (which will include last year’s single, a cover of David Rudder’s “The Immigrants”) would be out soon, together with a lucky score (on my annual visit to Portland, Oregon) of a mint copy of the reissue of Parks’s pan-and-calypso-ful Clang of the Yankee Reaper, prompt me to make my first post in over a year.  The unrelenting horror of the current administration’s treatment of immigrants of color—all people of color, really—should have been the real motivation, I suppose.  But it’s all too easy to lose sight of that particular horror against the backdrop of a thousand others, not to mention the steady thrum of poisonous rhetoric that aids and comforts Aryan nationalist terrorists with guns.

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I’ve written before about Parks’s cover of Tiger’s iconic “Money Is King,” and so has my friend and collaborator Ray Funk, who in his semi-retirement has become a regular (and prolific) correspondent for the T & T Guardian.  With his permission, and because the Guardian’s links tend to disappear capriciously, I’m sharing two of his recent pieces here.  The first was occasioned by former Carolina Chocolate Drop Leyla McCalla’s cover of “Money Is King” on her album Capitalist Blues:

Money is King TG 22 June 19 (click that link to view the pdf)

(Here’s the official video:)

The other concerns (take a deep breath) Carlos Santana’s cover of a Calypso Rose tune, “Abatina,” written by Kobo Town’s Drew Gonsalves in answer to Roaring Lion’s 1938 calypso “Tina.”  Santana’s version, retitled “Breaking Down the Door,” appears on his critically acclaimed comeback album Africa Speaks.

Here’s Santana, with vocalist Buika, performing “Breaking Down the Door” on the Jimmy Kimmel show:

Links to videos for Rose’s and Kobo Town’s versions are at the end of Ray’s feature (again, click the following link for a pdf):

Roaring Lion to Santana Trinidad Guardian 3 July 19

Two more bits of unrelated recent miscellany, in case another year goes by before I revisit this blog (!):

  1. Billboard reports that Smithsonian Folkways has completed its acquisition of the Stinson Records archives, which among other things will complement its collection of calypso recordings from Emory Cook and Moe Asch, with whom Stinson had a fraught relationship.  (Complicated story.)  Only a brief notice so far at the Smithsonian’s own website; we’ll hope to hear more soon.
  2. Documentarian Eve Goldberg has posted to YouTube her short film about Trinidadian-born piano virtuoso Hazel Scott, who was an enormous celebrity in the 1930s and 40s.  It’s entitled (appropriately) “What Ever Happened to Hazel Scott?

 

Posted in Calypso, Calypso Rose, Carlos Santana, David Rudder, Gaby Moreno, Growling Tiger, Hazel Scott, Kobo Town, Leyla McCalla, Moe Asch, Ray Funk, Smithsonian Folkways, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Immigrants

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 5, 2018

I’ve always been in the “Patriotism Is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels” camp.  And nothing makes me fume more than the mandatory display of Loyalty-to-Murca that precedes the first pitch of every U.S. baseball game.  Still, I hate to surrender the Fourth of July to the flag-waving, know-nothing, nativist MAGA mob. (In the New York Times, Professor Holly Jackson reminds us that Independence Day was once an occasion for protesting against social injustice.)

Thankfully, there’s national treasure and long-time calypsophile Van Dyke Parks, who has teamed up with the Guatemalan-American singer Gaby Moreno to resurrect David Rudder’s twenty-year-old anthem, “The Immigrants.”  With the gang of “zero-tolerance” zealots running things in Washington these days, the lyrics penned by Rudder, himself a migrant to Canada, are tragically timely.  Moreno, who immigrated to the U.S. eighteen years ago, gives them a heartfelt, hard-nosed reading, while Parks’s arrangement imbues the tune with a touch of (Randy) Newman-esque Americana.

You can purchase “The Immigrants” from Nonesuch Records (and all the usual online music vendors); sales will benefit the Central American Resource Center of California (CARECEN).

Calypso actually has a history with this sort of thing. In the 1940s, when Popular Front leftists fought a previous generation of nativists over the meaning of “Americanism,” “I Am An American Day,” celebrated each May in towns and cities large and small, effectively became a nationwide celebration of newly naturalized citizens from all parts of the world.  Along with other initiatives—National Brotherhood Week, radio shows such as Americans…All, popular songs like “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans”—I Am An American Day promoted ethnic harmony and celebrated the contributions of immigrant groups to U.S. history and culture, as one way of contrasting American liberal ideals against the chauvinism of Europe’s fascist regimes.  Sir Lancelot headed the British West Indies committee at the 1943 ceremony in Los Angeles, while the Duke of Iron appeared on an episode of the syndicated radio program This Is Our Cause marking the 1944 observation.[1] In New York, 1944 also saw the first I Am An American Day Folk Festival at the Golden Gate Ballroom, sponsored by Harlem’s George Washington Carver Community School, a new adult education center founded by radical writer, artist, activist and educator Gwendolyn Bennett. The Duke performed, along with a score of other entertainers and politicians, at the festival’s second and third iterations in 1945 and 46. (By 1947, sadly, the school had been hounded out of existence by the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

I-A-A-A Composite

Undated (1945) newspaper clipping and program, Cecil “Duke of Iron” Anderson Archives, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Cultures, New York Public Library

My friend and collaborator Ray Funk wrote a piece on “The Immigrants” for the Trinidad Guardian. You can also read what Felix Contreras has to say at NPR’s Alt.Latino, and revisit a 2009 profile of Van Dyke Parks for Crawdaddy by Denise Sullivan.


[1] “U.S. Treasury Fetes Singer,” Pittsburgh Courier 3 July 1943: 21; review of “This Is Our Cause,” Billboard 31 July 1943: 12-13.  WINS, which aired “This Is Our Cause” in New York, was the flagship station of the broadcast division of reactionary media magnate William Randolph Hearst’s Independent News Service.  The program was billed as a weekly wartime “patriotic revue,” and it’s possible that Hearst fingered the Duke because of his 1939 patriotic paean “U.S.A.,” recorded with Gerald Clark for Varsity records. Needless to say, Hearst’s “cause”—nativist assimilationism rather than progressive internationalism—was not necessarily the Duke’s.  The lyrics of Duke’s calypso, written by fellow Trini expatriate (and Harlem M.D.) Walter Merrick, extolled the United States not only as a place of freedom , democracy, and material bounty, but as a haven for refugees and the home of Roosevelt’s WPA.

Posted in Calypso, David Rudder, Gaby Moreno, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Re-Blog: Lip-Syncing in 1948

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 10, 2018

I meant to pass along this great tip from Lord Investor well before now.  (His blog, by the way, is well worth your investment—far more profitable, to my mind, than…I donno…Bitcoin or Facebook or Blockchain or whatever other Newspeak-y thing is on everyone’s lips these days.)  It’s a 1948 “soundie“—ancestor of the music video—of the Duke of Iron, voice and cuatro, with Gregory Felix on clarinet (and possibly Modesto Calderon on bass and Victor Pacheco, percussion), miming to their own recorded performance of “Wild Indian.”  Why the lip-syncing, I don’t know, as the recording they’re singing along to is clearly not the one they made for Moe Asch in 1945. Perhaps because even though six sides from that recording session came out on Stinson in 1946, “Wild Indian” only saw the light of day when the album, Jungle Calypso, was re-released in 1953, with “bonus tracks,” as a 10-inch LP.

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The “Soundies” era was mostly over by 1947, although old soundies were repackaged for television in the first decade of that medium, which probably explains the “Sterling Television Release” credit at the end of this particular video.  (The  film’s producer, Video Varieties Corporation, seems to have been in business at least through the early 50s.  In recent years, an outfit called “Soundies Central” has repackaged a bunch of these old films for the web and DVD.)

Because they didn’t last—and, presumably, because they were only ever intended as a “throwaway” medium to begin with—not many have survived, so it’s really something when one turns up.  (Kudos to Chris Lawson and Meloware Media for rescuing this one!)  For our Calypso Craze set, Ray Funk got his hands on two from 1943 by Beryl McBurnie and Sam Manning, and Bear Family oversaw their restoration.  One of these, “Quarry Road,” has since found its way to YouTube in a lo-res version.

I’ve heard of other calypso-related soundies.  As I mentioned to his Lordship: when I was perusing old issues of Billboard some years ago, I came across a review of the Duke of Iron’s act at Manhattan’s Pago Pago Club in early 1941. The reviewer was annoyed by the fact that on the night he attended, the performance was interrupted by cameramen shooting movies of the entire troupe (which included Bill Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid, and his dancers, who had earlier done a record-breaking run with the Duke and Gerald Clark at the Village Vanguard). Elsewhere in the same issue, it emerged that two soundies of Matons, undoubtedly including the Duke, would soon be released by Spotlight Productions.  Would love to see those.  Almost five years later, when DownBeat ran a story about Lord Invader (who was in New York to pursue a lawsuit against Morey Amsterdam and the Andrews Sisters for stealing “Rum and Coca-Cola”), it mentioned that a short, “Yankee Dollar in Trinidad”—possibly a soundie of “Yankee Dollar,” which Invader was about to cut for Asch’s new label, Disc Records—would be released in early 1946.  Never seen that one, either.

And of course the holy grail of calypso on celluloid: Lord Invader with MacBeth’s band in the 1946 Pigmeat Markham vehicle, House-Rent Party.  You can see Gregory Felix, clarinet bell in the air, on the left side of the frame in that “proscenium” photo below.  And to his left, behind the drummer: is that the Duke of Iron on cuatro? Another thought: maybe the “Yankee Dollar” short was just an edit from the feature film?

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Anyway, “Wild Indian.”  It’s possible the Duke himself wrote this, although like other resident calypsonians in New York, he wasn’t always scrupulous about attributing authorship. Today’s “Fancy Indian” carnival masqueraders are said to have evolved out of the “Wild” or “Red” Indians, which are among the oldest of Trini mas bands.  (Cousins of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians, no doubt, the Trinidadian versions are supposedly inspired by the Warao people of neighboring Venezuela, which is why the mas characters are sometimes known as “Guarahoon,” a word you’ll hear in the “nonsense” chorus of the song.) To the extent that Duke’s tune describes, enacts, and comments on carnival traditions—and implicitly, in this case almost proleptically, mourns their passing—it belongs to a genre that is the calypso equivalent of ole mas.

Posted in 1940s, Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, Moe Asch, New York City, New York Nightclubs, Soundies | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Re-Post: The Destiny of a Dance Master

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 15, 2018

Repeating Islands repeated a piece from Caribbean Life by Tequila Minsky on a recent centennial celebration at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center, honoring the late Jean-Léon Destiné. (A second event takes place in the library’s third-floor screening room on April 25th.)

Seems as good a time as any to recall my own short commemoration of Destiné from 2013.

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Posted in 1940s, Jean-Léon Destiné, New York City, New York Public Library, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How a Calypso Anthem Became the Surreal Centerpiece of Beetlejuice

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 7, 2018

I don’t usually reblog, but this just seemed too perfect. Hat-tip to Repeating Islands—and to Pitchfork. (And, while we’re at it, to Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones [A.W. Merrick!].) I’m probably not quite as sanguine as Belafonte is about beer-soaked ballpark fans bellowing “Day-O”: minstrelsy comes in many forms, after all, and at this point a living legend like him surely doesn’t need to worry about his longevity. But if he can take the charitable view, then who am I to argue?

Repeating Islands

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A report by Zach Schonfeld for Pitchfork.

Harry Belafonte received a telephone call.

It was 1986 or early 1987, and David Geffen was on the other line. He was calling the Jamaican-American singer and activist on behalf of his production house, the Geffen Film Company, with a rather unusual request. Could he use Belafonte’s music in a dark comedy about two ghosts who hire a crass “freelance bio-exorcist” to rid their home of insufferable art snobs?

The film sounded preposterous. Yet Belafonte was intrigued. And flattered.

“I never had a request like that before,” says Belafonte, who is now 91 and retired from music in favor of humanitarian work. “We talked briefly. I liked the idea of Beetlejuice. I liked him. And I agreed to do it.” (Geffen was unable to be interviewed for this piece, but confirmed through a representative that he remembers the same phone…

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“Don’t ask me nothin’ at all. Just give me the match and oil.”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 3, 2018

What I know—or thought I knew—about Virgin Islands calypso corresponds almost exactly* to what I know about the Duke of Iron’s connection to the Virgin Islands, which I wrote about in passing here, years ago. (Formerly the Danish Virgin Islands, St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas were acquired by the United States during World War I as a hedge against the Huns. Like America’s other Caribbean colony forty miles to the west, the U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated last fall by Hurricane Maria—after being pummeled by Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier. You can contribute to the ongoing relief effort that’s being coordinated by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.)

But sometimes you know more than you think you know.

When I read in today’s New York Times about Denmark’s “first public monument to a black woman,” viz. a statue of Mary Thomas, one of the “three queens” who led the workers’ uprising known as “Fireburn” in the Danish Virgin Islands in 1878, I thought:  there must be calypsos about this woman.  I was only partly wrong.

There is in fact a song, “Queen Mary”—so well known (or so I learned today) that it’s St. Croix’s unofficial anthem. And there was a stretch in the 1950s, when musicians from all over the Caribbean were eager to supply a bull market for calypso in the United States, when the tune would indeed have been called a “calypso.” But it’s really an example of what’s more properly dubbed scratch band or fungi music—or lately (and since 2003, officially) quelbe—whose sources and evolution are similar to those of calypso.  I once knew all this, vaguely, but Daniel Sheehy reminded me of it in his liner notes to a 2016 CD of that name by Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights, on Smithsonian Folkways records. [Edit, March 2019: the estimable Afropop Worldwide just devoted an entire episode to Quelbe.]

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As soon as I served up the Smithsonian’s 30-second sample of Stanley’s rendition of “Queen Mary,” I suddenly realized that I already knew the song, and Google helped me remember from where: it also closes the album Crucian Scratch Band Music, by serious-contender-for-best-band-name-ever Blinky and the Roadmasters, which I have on a cassette somewhere in a box in the rafters of my garage.

You can learn more about the historical “Queen Mary” Thomas at a website begun by the Danish National Archives just last year.  The entry on Thomas, “The three rebel queens,” is sometimes more than a bit tone-deaf: it gratuitously comments that the rebel leader “had become somewhat intoxicated,” was “very active in vandalism,” and “had previously been punished for mistreating one of her children” (she had three, “although she was unwed”).

queen-mary

But at other times you can also hear it trying not to be so racist and Eurocentric—and the site itself, which has digitized thousands of documents related to the colonial administration of the Danish West Indies, part of a belated effort national reckoning—is quite remarkable.

As for the statue of Mary Thomas, which sits in front of an old sugar and rum warehouse near the prison in Copenhagen where she was jailed for her role in the rebellion: its co-sculptor, Virgin Islander La Vaughn Belle, said that “it’s about challenging Denmark’s collective memory and changing it.”  Here in the U.S., we’ve had one or two discussions recently about public statuary, including a few in my own little burg, where a bronze William McKinley, who has no connection to this place, has stood incongruously in the town square since 1906.  There’s still the small matter of Greenland, of course, but a hundred years after Denmark turned over its imperial keys to the United States, the former vendor could teach a thing or two to the buyer. Queen Mary gyal: weh yu gwan go bun?


*With that “almost,” I’m not counting the two dozen or so tunes I’ve heard by “Calypso Craze”-era stars like Lloyd Thomas, the Mighty Zebra, and the Fabulous McClevertys.

Posted in Calypso, Quelbe, Virgin Islands | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Roswell Rudd

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 23, 2017

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“You blow in this end of the trombone and sound comes out the other end and disrupts the cosmos.”
—Roswell Rudd

As a lapsed trombonist and a jazz fan for most of my adult life, I can’t help having a healthy respect for Roswell Rudd, even if his music rarely spends much time in my CD player. Known for his “free” playing, Rudd, who died Thursday, just a month after his 82nd birthday, was actually a musical omnivore with very big ears. In late life, especially, he made good on his work as a musicological researcher for Alan Lomax, collaborating with musicians from across the African diaspora. He never wrote anything even vaguely calypso-ish, as far as I know—Rudd fanatics, correct me if I’m overlooking something—though he did record with Puerto Rican cuatro master Yamo Toro. What I respect most about Rudd, maybe, is his lifelong championing of his mentor Herbie Nichols, whose music occasionally shows the oblique influence of his Trini and St. Kittian parentage (and of the San Juan Hill and Harlem neighborhoods where he grew up). Without Rudd’s evangelizing, Nichols’s work might still be languishing in the shadows.

Here’s Rudd, with Greg Millar and John Bacon, Jr., covering Nichols’s “Jamaica”:


More reading/listening:

Posted in Alan Lomax, Herbie Nichols, Roswell Rudd, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ivan Chermayeff

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 7, 2017

This blog has been dormant for a long time, and I can’t explain why it’s rousing itself for this story, particularly—but then again I can’t say why not, either.  The inspiration was really just one of those casual coincidences: yesterday I had occasion to speak by phone with two of the peerless staff at the Rinzler Archives of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I’m writing about Lord Invader’s years in the United States and his involvement with Popular Front politics and culture, and I had some questions about unreleased material from Invader’s recording sessions for Folkways Records in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Among other things, the Rinzler houses the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, and Invader cut dozens of sides for Moe Asch between 1945 (when he came to the States to pursue a copyright claim to “Rum and Coca Cola”) and 1961, committing his final tracks to tape a few months before his untimely death.

Between them, labels run by Asch and Emory Cook, whose collection also wound up under the Rinzler’s roof, issued some of the most significant bodies of recorded calypso of the mid-twentieth century; together those labels form the core of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which keeps the Folkways and Cook catalogs in print (well, print-on-demand) in their entirety and occasionally mines them—and their associated archival collections—for new compilations. (In fact, John Cowley compiled an essential selection of Invader’s output for Moe Asch for the 2000 CD Calypso in New York, Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40454.)

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That evening, as I belatedly leafed through the day’s newspaper before bed, I came upon Margalit Fox’s obituary for famed graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff, who created iconic logos for (among others) Chase bank, Mobil Oil, New York University, and…the Smithsonian.

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In the 1950s, Chermayeff cut his teeth designing album covers for Columbia, Command, and others—but not for Cook or Folkways. No calypso albums, either, as far as I know. The universe is rarely that liberal with its coincidences.

Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Ivan Chermayeff, Lord Invader, Moe Asch, Smithsonian Folkways | Leave a Comment »

Fidel Castro

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 27, 2016

In 1959, Lord Invader celebrated the fact that every once in a while it’s the revolutionaries, not the reactionaries, who surprise the world.

An internationalist of long standing, Invader recorded “Fidel Castro” for an album on Moe Asch‘s New York-based Folkways label (Calypso Travels, FW 8733) that also included denunciations of the segregationist governor Orval Faubus (“Crisis in Arkansas“) and the racist “Teddy Boys” then terrorizing Blacks in Great Britain (“Cat-o-Nine Tails,” a cover of the “Teddy Boy Calypso” he’d released in England earlier that year). The shorter, slicker version of “Fidel” above, however, is from a children’s record (!), Brown Boy in the Ring, made around the same time. The rowdier version from Calypso Travels can be heard in an unauthorized upload to YouTube here.

“For many in Latin America, Africa, and the rest of the Third World, Castro achieved giant-slayer status by standing up to the United States and supporting independence and social movements around the globe,” writes Peter Kornbluh in The Nation (December 19/26, 2016). In spite of his subsequent authoritarian and often repressive rule, Castro’s “vision, action, and principles of international revolutionary solidarity indisputably transformed his country from a small Caribbean nation under the thumb of US hegemony into a major independent actor on the world stage.” That—together with what historian Greg Grandin called the “joyful, raucous, and brash” nature of Castro’s revolution—is what endeared him to fellow travelers like Invader.

Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Lord Invader, New York City | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Oscar Brand, 1920-2016

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 2, 2016

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It seemed like he’d live forever.

Posted in Oscar Brand, WNYC | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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