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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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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In 2009, Parks reissued the Esso and Sparrow discs on CD on his own “Bananastan” label (Warner had originally made the albums as an indulgence to their wunderkind, but never really promoted them and long ago let them fall out of print), and he also dusted off Atilla the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.

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6 Responses to “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 2”

  1. Tina said

    Since most people won’t be aware of it, I’d just like to put in a plug for the Jim Pembroke Band out of Finland, who did a cover of “Money Is King” on their 1981 album Flat Broke.

  2. […] Kobo town aren’t the only ones out there doing new takes on old tunes.  Gonsalves’s age-mate and fellow expat, trumpeter and Michigan State University professor Etienne Charles, is winning big props for his new album, Creole Soul (samples on SoundCloud; profile on AAJ), while Van Dyke Parks incorporates his previously released cover of “Money Is King” into Songs Cycled, his first album of new material—never mind the backward-glancing title—in almost two decades.  Two degrees of separation: in their live show, Kobo Town also regularly covers Growling Tiger’s classic statement of outrage over what we euphemise these days as “income inequality,” while Charles’s grandfather played cuatro in Tiger’s band.  (Previous posts: Etienne Charles, Van Dyke Parks.) […]

  3. […] in the United States, including a final farewell stint in the 1980s with the likes of Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks in Los Angeles. He died in Southern California in March of 2001, at the reported age of […]

  4. […] in the United States, including a final farewell stint in the 1980s with the likes of Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks in Los Angeles. He died in Southern California in March of 2001, at the reported age of 98. […]

  5. […] in the United States, including a final farewell stint in the 1980s with the likes of Ry Cooder and Van Dyke Parks in Los Angeles. He died in Southern California in March of 2001, at the reported age of […]

  6. […] written about Lancelot before (full disclosure: Dunn links to one of my posts), but Dunn does it better.  At any rate, I don’t want to spoil the story, which you should […]

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