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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Hockey, Lovely Hockey

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 8, 2010

Victory Test MatchThere’s a venerable tradition of calypsos about cricket.  It stretches from the glory years of Calypso Cricket, when the Windies dominated the sport and David Rudder exorted the region to “Rally Round,” back through Relator’s 1972 “Gavaskar,” Lord Beginner’s “Victory Test Match” (a/k/a “Cricket Lovely Cricket”) and Lord Kitchener’s “Alec Bedser Calypso” (both from 1950), all the way to paeans to Learie Constantine by Caresser (1939) and Beginner (1928).

(King Radio, “We Want Ramadin on the Ball,” ca. 1952 – from Juneberry 78s)

Cricket plays a huge part in Caribbean identity.  One of the 20th century’s foremost intellectuals, the Trinidadian C.L.R. James, was famous among other things for his cricket journalism; his Beyond a Boundary, which Rudder’s calypso namechecks, is a landmark in West Indian thought.  All of the calypsos I’ve cited, and more besides, are generally fairly straightforward tributes to teams and individuals, though Rudder also takes James’s point that “[t]his is more than just cricket.”  I suppose that any attempt to explain the subject’s enduring popularity in calypso, however, should at least nod to the fact that bowling and batting present a wealth of metaphorical opportunities for boastful males to describe their technique in another, more universal, human endeavor.

In 1950, both Kitch and Beginner were based in England, and that’s where, at about the same time, bandleader Edmundo Ros started a vogue for calypsos about soccer with 1953’s “Exotic Football Calypso,” which was followed closely by Trini expat Edric Connor‘s “Manchester United Calypso.”  (Nowadays any English professional football team worth its cleats has its own calypso.)

Back in the 1930s and 40s there were any number of calypsos written about boxer Joe Louis, and there may even have been one or two homages to baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson.  But with the Habs still alive in the playoffs (as I write, the series is tied at 2), I’ll wager that Lord Caresser is the only bona fide Trinidadian calypsonian to have composed a tune about ice hockey.

Actually Caresser wrote about all sorts of winter sports during his time in Canada.  One of his most requested tunes was his “Ode to Barbara Ann Scott,” the Canadian Olympic figure skater.   (“You are a Skating Queen of the Ice / And, what is nice, you proved it twice / Adding laurels to your Country’s fame / Perpetuating its illustrious name.”)  His firsthand accounts of experiences with hibernal pastimes, however, are rather more equivocal.  Here’s the conclusion to his skiing misadventure in the Laurentians, for example (“Skiing”):

Constance found me trembling
From the shock I was just recovering
My  feet she tried to untangle
I was all wrapped up like a cross word puzzle
Struggling under cramping pain
I crawled and creeped until I reached the train
And swore never again in life to ski
Not if the snow on the mountains turned currency.

About hockey, he at least forced himself, after sitting through a professional match, to finish on an obligingly commendatory note:  “Cricket is really my favorite game,” he reminds us, just to reinforce his West Indian bona fides, “But from now on, hockey is my middle name / […] / For hockey today as it really stands / Should be supported by all the sporting fans.”   The bulk of “The Hockey League,” though, elaborates his discomfited surprise at what a brutal sport the fastest game on earth turns out to be—”naked war,” he calls it.  “If it wasn’t for the referees,” goes the chorus’s final couplet, “They would surely kill the goalies.”  Caresser’s sons, good French Canadians, grew up Black Iceplaying hockey, and as George and Darril Fosty’s Black Ice shows, the few dozen players of African descent who have made it into the NHL over the past 50 years or so are hardly the first black men to put on skates and pass around the puck.  (And given that the scene the Fostys document was centered around Halifax, it seems likely that at least some of those players, in later years, anyway, were West Indian.)  I didn’t ask his sons, and they didn’t say, whether, after watching the Habs’ choreographed brawl, Caresser was ever moved to grab a stick and get on the ice himself….

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Further Reading /Listening:
  • Calypso Cricket Lyrics (West Indies Players Association)
  • Gordon Rohlehr, “Calypso, Cricket, and West Indian Cricket: Era of Dominance” (Anthurium 6:1 [Spring 2008])
  • Martin Williamson, “Those two little pals of mine...ESPN CricInfo 24 June 2006
  • Douglas Midgett, “Cricket and Calypso: Cultural Representation and Social History in the West Indies” (Sport in Society 6:2 [2003]), rpt. in  J.A. Mangan and Andrew Ritchie, eds., Ethnicity, Sport, Identity: Struggles for Status (New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • Hilary McD. Beckles, The Development of West Indian Cricket: The Age of Nationalism (London: Pluto, 1998)
  • Claire Westall, “‘This thing goes beyond the boundary’: cricket, calypso, the Caribbean and their heroes.”  In Antony Bateman and John Bale, eds., Sporting Sounds: Relationships Between Sport and Music (New York: Routledge, 2009)
  • Lord Kitchener, “The Ashes
  • Brothers Christefor & Batson, “Dividing of the Cricket Spoils
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