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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for May 21st, 2012

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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