Helan Går Dey
Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 12, 2011
I’m hoping somebody can help me out here. Sonny Rollins is on record (so to speak) as having first heard the melody of his signature tune “St. Thomas” on “his mother’s knee.”
A Wikipedian characterizes the tune as “a traditional nursery song from the Virgin Islands,” although Rollins himself, while acknowledging that the song went by various names in the islands, infers (in Erik Nisenson’s Open Sky) that it originated as “a Scandinavian folk song.” He seems to have reached that conclusion in part because of the Virgin Islands’ Danish colonial history–and in part because a tune he “heard sung by [Danish operatic tenor] Lauritz Melchior in an old Hollywood movie” triggered a sort of Proustian memory of Mom.
Now, for a while I concluded that Rollins must be referring to the old Swedish drinking song “Helan Går” (“Bottoms Up”), which Melchior performed, uncredited, in 1948’s Luxury Liner, a “Latin” romp with George Brent and Jane Powell (and Xavier Cugat). Melchior also recorded the tune around the same time–as did the Belafonte Folk Singers, a decade later. Have a listen:
Okay, so … the connection is faint, or strained, or something. I’m no musicologist. Still: making allowances for poetic license and jazz improvisation, it works, sort of. But then I heard Christopher Lydon’s interview with Rollins for Radio Open Source, where it emerges that it wasn’t a “Scandinavian” tune he’d had in mind at all, but a different drinking song, “Vive la Compagnie” (“Vive l’Amour,” probably English in origin), which Melchior sang in his film debut Thrill of a Romance (1945)–and which became part of his concert and nightclub repertoire (!) in the early and mid-1950s. (It’s also included on the LP The Lighter Side of Lauritz Melchior. I didn’t take the time to do a mash-up for this one, but in case you’ve forgotten the melody of “Vive l’Amour,” here’s a hammy, late-career Melchior on YouTube:)
Fair enough: the melody and structure are much closer. I get how “St. Thomas” could be construed as an “interpretation” of “Vive l’Amour” (which is how Rollins describes it in the Lydon interview).
And yet…is there any reason to think that the song to which young Sonny’s mother dandled him on her knee has anything to do with either the Swedish or the English drinking song, or even some strange cocktail of the two? After all, Louis Walcott, later Louis Farrakhan, a/k/a “The Charmer,” had recorded the tune (as “Fire Down There,” pronounced “Fyah Doung Dey”) for Monogram in 1953 or 54, with the McCleverty Brothers–also from the Virgin Islands–as his backup band. (I’m no prude, but I’ve gotta say that “Fire Down There” seems scarcely more age-appropriate for young children than “Bottoms Up” or “Vive l’Amour,” even if its lyrics purport to proffer some motherly advice:)
The Duke of Iron, a favorite calypsonian of Rollins and something of a hero in the Virgin Islands, also recorded “Fire Down There” for Monogram in the early 1950s. (The Duke’s version of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” another famous Rollins calypso, became the theme song for VI’s nearly-rained-out carnival in 1952. Although Lord Invader was the first to record that tune [for Decca in 1939], the Duke waxed it for Moe Asch in 1944 and performed it with Invader at Carnegie Hall in 1946.) And pianist (and Rollins’s labelmate) Randy Weston, whose Jamaican-Panamanian father hosted friends from all over the West Indies at the family’s house in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn–and frequently took his son to Harlem to hear calypso–had already done a jazz rendition for his album Get Happy, released earlier in 1956:
So what’s the deal? These are all remarkably similar “interpretations.” Is Sonny just misremembering, or did Rollins, Weston, The Duke of Iron and the McClevertys all have the same obscure Anglo-Viking forebear? Virgin Islanders, ethnomusicologists: what’s the answer? Skol! (And tak!)
P.S.: Melchior’s filmography is at the Lauritz Melchior Web.