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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for May, 2012

He’s Nuts about Screwy Music

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 31, 2012

It’s the end of an era tonight on my local public radio station, KHSU.  After eighteen years of “Classic Jazz Variety,” the amiable, easygoing, good-humored Barry Thorpe is hanging up his headphones and abandoning us for Bali.

Barry’s no stranger to classic instrumental jazz: his playlists feature plenty of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and the like.  But he’s partial to vocals, preferably playful, witty—okay, “novelty”—vocals.  (Phil Harris, Danny Kaye, and Spike Jones loom large in the CJV universe, and Barry’s longtime theme song is Jimmie Lunceford’s “I’m Nuts About Screwy Music,” with alto saxophonist Willie Smith suavely handling the mic.)

Roaring Lion

The Lion, circa 1934

And when Barry says variety, he means variety: stride, swing, western swing, bebop, blues, Broadway, music-hall, mambo, chanson…they’re all part of the weekly offering.  Oh—and calypso.  I first tuned in to Barry’s program in the fall of 1995, having just moved to Humboldt County and begun my first semester of full-time college teaching.  And so I wasn’t sure I could trust my ears when, strung-out and exhausted and collapsed on the couch one Wednesday in early September, I suddenly heard the Roaring Lion coming out of my radio.  (I think the tune was “Love Thy Neighbor.”)  Granted, my little college town was just a few miles down the northern California coast from the fishing village of Trinidad, and even then Humboldt State University had a well-established steelband, led by the indefatigable Eugene Novotney.  But I never imagined I’d be living in a place where Golden Age calypso plied the airwaves.  (Over the years, I’ve heard Barry play Sir Lancelot and Lord Executor and The Caresser and possibly even a latter-day tune or two by Melody, but Lion holds pride of place in his calypso pantheon.  Even as I write this, he’s spinning Lion’s 1939 “Bing Crosby”—”one of the best tunes ever written,” Barry opines matter-of-factly.)  In short, I was gobsmacked.  I called the station to talk to the amazing being responsible for this miracle, and Barry deflected my astonishment with grace, humility, and reciprocal interest.

And so I’ve gotten to know Barry a little over the years—he even asked me to sub for him once on “Classic Jazz Variety” when he was off vacationing in the South Pacific—and I’ve never known a gentler, more generous soul.  (Or anyone with such a catholic knowledge of the more delightfully eccentric music of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.)  It’s hard to believe so many years have disappeared.  And now Barry has digitized and sold his 78s, ready to ride off into the Pacific sunset.  I know it’s a (fictional) place, not a valediction, but:  Bali Ha’i, Barry.

Posted in Barry Thorpe, Calypso, The Lion | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 2

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 23, 2012

Discover AmericaVan Dyke ParksActually, this is something like “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again” squared.  Visionary American songwriter/musician/arranger/producer Van Dyke Parks first championed vintage calypso back in 1969, when a blow-out from an offshore Union Oil rig spread as much as 100,000 gallons of crude over the coast of southern California.  Around the same time, Parks happened to catch the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband serving as exotic props in Liberace’s Las Vegas nightclub act.  “I thought it was a vulgarity,” he said; “I wanted to save them from their trivialization.”  Youthful but good-hearted paternalism.  Yet something else clicked: an understanding of the links between globalization, neo-colonialism, environmental racism—and an Afro-diasporic cultural affinity for what the great Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite describes as “twisting music out of hunger.”  (“America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” as Esso steelbandsman Godfrey Clarke put it.)  In short, Parks “went calypso,” and within the space of a few years he produced records for Warner Brothers by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band (1971) and the Mighty Sparrow (1974), touring the country with the former; he also recorded his own album of classic calypso covers, Discover America (1972) and arranged a cover of Calypso Rose’s “Wha She Go Do” for Bonnie Raitt’s Takin’ My Time (1973).   (Later, with help from Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, Parks orchestrated a minor comeback for the retired expatriate calypsonian Sir Lancelot.)  You can read a fuller account of Parks’s discovery of calypso here—and listen to him talk about his first encounter (and his American tour) with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band at NPR’s Lost and Found Sound.

VDP, Lancelot, Cooder

Van Dyke Parks with Sir Lancelot and Ry Cooder, McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Los Angeles, December 1984. Photo copyright Sherry Rayn Barnett.

In 2009, Parks reissued the Esso and Sparrow discs on CD on his own “Bananastan” label (Warner had originally made the albums as an indulgence to their wunderkind, but never really promoted them and long ago let them fall out of print), and he also dusted off Atilla the Hun’s “FDR in Trinidad” in a 1996 concert that finally made it to CD in 2011. Discover America (where his rendition of that tune first appeared) and its follow-up, Clang of the Yankee Reaper, are slated for re-release this summer.  In the meantime, Parks has revisited calypso’s Golden Age with a timely arrangement of Tiger’s classic “Money Is King” as the b-side of his own “Wall Street.”  The pair of songs constitutes the first release in a series of 7-inch vinyl 45 rpm singles—remember those?—available for order exclusively from Parks’s website.  (They can also be had commercially as digital downloads.)  Of Tiger’s classic tune, which offers “transcultural truths about the lives of the rich and the poor,” Parks comments (at the blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books):

Wall Street/Money Is King

Cover art by Art Spiegelman

Today, the pressing questions are economic ones. Inequalities between the rich and poor could not be more entrenched anywhere than they are in the United States. That fact is largely overlooked by foreign observers, blessed by national healthcare safety nets and other civil services. MacWorld now views the U.S.A. primarily through its music and movies, which paint a picture of vapid sitcom jollity. T’aint so…”Money is King” …underscores this sudden spate of public outrage at the bank and corporate bail-outs, with a simultaneous reduction of services for the poor. This toxic mix has created a spontaneous combustion reminiscent of Tsarist times.

The Growling Tiger discovered America a long time ago:  he first came to New York with Atilla and Beginner at the height of the Depression in 1935, the very year he composed “Money Is King.”  In 2012, thanks to VDP, he occupies Wall Street.

Posted in Growling Tiger, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 1

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 21, 2012

Sort of. According to an article in the New York Times, in 2011, digital downloads outstripped physical album sales in the U.S. for the first time: 50.3% of last year’s recorded music sales were digital. This probably has no special signficance for calypso.  While there has been a tiny niche market in the U.S. for historical calypso ever since the concoction of the “world music” marketing category in the mid-1980s, it’s already been more than a decade since, say, Rounder, issued a new compilation.

Man Smart, Woman Smarter Vol. 1And yet the last year or so has seen a spate of new, digital-only releases on previously unknown “labels.”  It started in 2009 with collections of orphaned and out-of-print material by Kitch, the Duke of Iron, and Houdini on Radiophone Archives, whose latest addition is a covers album of Radio’s “Man Smart, Woman Smarter.”  No liner notes or discographical information, sadly, but at least there’s a logic to the collections, and some obvious care taken in the selection (many tracks never before seen on CD), the transfers, the artwork, etc. In other words, they were put together by someone who loves the music and knows something about it. (Out of respect for that person’s privacy—and the inanities of U.S. copyright law and its zealous enforcers—I’ll not divulge the secret of his/her identity.)

Less impressive: the grey-market Master Classics, whose half-dozen offerings include a collection of vintage calypso seemingly nicked from Rounder, and what looks to be a straight rip-off of Sacred 78s, an out-of-print Roaring Lion compilation on Ice Records(Okay, so Eddy Grant’s own licensing arrangements were always rumored to be dodgy, too, so what’s good for the goose….)

Calypso Pioneers

More apparent piracy, but on a grander scale, from Black Round Records, whose 15 calypso collections—three of them devoted to single artists (Houdini, Lancelot, Melody) and one, oddly, a Panther and Macbeth double-bill—borrow freely from a number of other labels.  (They take even greater liberties with dating, attribution, and spelling.) Cynical, haphazard, uninformed.

Roastin Records, meanwhile, offers different versions of the same incongruous compilation for the American and overseas markets.

Let’s be clear: most of this material is either orphaned or in the public domain (or it would be, if Congress, at the behest of Disney and its ilk, didn’t keep extending copyrights whenever they’re just about to expire). Better it should be available in any form, however shoddy, rather than languishing in some hapless record company’s vaults or on a hoarder-collector’s climate-conditioned shelves. Given the small market and the digital aggregators’ fees, I can’t imagine anyone is making a fortune off of these, even at 79¢ a track—and nobody’s losing valuable royalties, either. (Most of the above links are to eMusic, by the way, only because I’ve been a subscriber there through thick, thin, and thinner. But the digi-labels distribute to all the other usual online suspects, too.)  But come on, folks: follow Radiophone Archives’ example. Do your own transfers and noise reduction, for godssakes; don’t steal someone else’s work.  And don’t be so damn slapdash.

Posted in Calypso | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

Go-Go Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 21, 2012

It’s been a while—well, a semester (where do all those other academic bloggers find the time?)—but spring grades are posted, loose ends are tied, and I’m already wondering how, in the next 80 days, I’ll ever manage to get around the world of 3R (readin’, ritin’, and research) I’ve been deferring for ages.  I’ll post some odds and ends I’ve been saving soon.  But first:

Chuck Brown on NPR's World Cafe

Chuck Brown, photographed by John Shore (NPR’s “World Cafe”)

Last week the African diaspora lost two musical giants: disco diva Donna Summer and “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown. Best known outside of Washington, D.C for his 1979 chart-topper “Bustin’ Loose,” Brown forged the non-stop, funky, mid-tempo beat that propelled the Chocolate City for more than three decades.  (Like his music, the 75-year-old Brown and his band, the Soul Searchers, just kept going and going.)  Wound-up D.C. clubgoers could name all of Brown’s tunes—and start shouting their call-and-response liturgies—within a few notes.  One of them: “Run Joe,” the 1947 Louis Jordan hit composed by Trinidadian emigrés Joseph Willoughby and Dr. Walter Merrick.

Walter Merrick

Dr. Walter Merrick

Merrick was a noted physician in Harlem and head of Harlem Hospital’s department of physical medicine.  He’d been composing since his college years at Howard University and his songs had been recorded as far back as 1920.[1] Willoughby, meanwhile, was twice called upon by The New Yorker in the mid-1950s as an elder statesman of Harlem’s West Indian community, first to interpret its quaint customs for the well-heeled and later to judge the authenticity of “Calypso Craze” hits.  John Cowley has concluded that “Run Joe,” like many other such tunes, must have been adapted from a traditional source, as Merrick had in 1921 recorded an unissued piano solo called “Come Quick, The Man at the Door,” subtitled “a Grenadian Paseo.”[2]

Here’s a classic 1987 performance of “Run Joe” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers:


A more recent rendition—from 2010, with better production values—is on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert.”  (Move the slider to 19:00.  Or better yet, watch the whole concert.)  Last Labor Day, DC’s National Symphony Orchestra arranged “Run, Joe” and other tunes associated with Brown as part of a pops tribute concert to “Legends of Washington Music.”  (The Godfather was in good company: the other “legends” were John Philip Sousa and Duke Ellington.)

Brown and the Soul Searchers also regularly funked up Irving Burgie and Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O”:



[1]Medic Composes Hit Songs.” Jet, June 5, 1952.  pp. 64-65

[2] John Cowley, “West Indies Blues: An Historical Overview, 1920s-1950s—Blues and Music from the English-speaking West Indies.”  Robert Springer, ed.  Nobody Knows Where the Blues Come From: Lyrics and History.  Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.  p. 252

Posted in Chuck Brown, Go-Go, Joe | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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