Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3
Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 3, 2012
A couple of months ago, the internet did one of those things it’s meant to do (but rarely does): it served up a huge cultural treasure, indexed, annotated, and easy to use.
The Association for Cultural Equity, founded in 1983 by musicologist Alan Lomax and housed at Hunter College in Manhattan, exists “to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.” Its enlightened mission: to “preserve, publish, repatriate and freely disseminate our collections.” (You can read the full statement here.) Those collections include the Alan Lomax Archive—a “priceless” (and staggering) trove “of recorded music, dance, and the spoken word” begun in 1946. So far, the online archive includes over “17,000 free full-streaming audio field-recordings, totaling over eight hundred hours […]; scans of 5,000 photographic prints and negatives; sixteen hours of vintage radio transcriptions; and ninety hours of interviews, discussions, and lectures”—with more to come.
For calypso fans, the earliest item in the archive is also one of the best: the complete tapes of the December, 1946 People’s Songs “Midnight Special” concert at New York’s Town Hall, previously released on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight. (Chris Smith penned a smart review of those CDs for Musical Traditions magazine, while Kevin Burke provides historical context at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.) The concert’s front page leads to a track-by-track rundown; clicking on each track’s title yields an audio player and full recording details, with credits and scholarly notes by Don Hill and John Cowley.
The “Calypso at Midnight” show paved the way for a series of high-profile calypso concerts in New York over the next twelve months: at Carnegie Hall (as part of the Carnegie “Pop” Concerts series in May and June 1947), Town Hall and Carnegie Hall again (both in October 1947), and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (late 1947 and early 1948), and it probably emboldened Sam Manning to rush into production an ill-fated Broadway revue. (That show, which previewed in Philly and Boston as “Calypso” and opened as “Caribbean Carnival” on December 5, 1947 at the International Theatre on Columbus Circle, closed after just eleven performances. Although it was billed as the “First Calypso Musical Ever Presented,” that distinction arguably belonged to Katherine Dunham‘s similarly short-lived “Carib Song” from 1945. [See Darrel Karl’s Keeping Score for recording histories of “Carib Song” and “Caribbean Carnival.”])
According to the Afro-American, the May 8th, 1947 Pop Concert at Carnegie “saw more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore unable to gain admission,” which meant that “by popular demand,” a second show (“with an enlarged cast”) had to be scheduled for June 9. Of “Calypso at Midnight,” the socialist Daily Worker had noted somewhat patronizingly that “[i]t has never been more noticeable that the first laughter and applause [for the calypsonians’ bons mots] comes from the uppermost reaches of the balcony.” (Meanwhile, calypso continued to draw crowds at clubs in Harlem and at other African-American gathering spots uptown like the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Park Palace, and the Renaissance Casino. [See “Bop Guy Goes Calypso.”])
“Calypso at Midnight” isn’t the only item in the ACE archive of interest to calypso enthusiasts: Lomax traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean in 1962, and everything he recorded there has been placed online, indexed by session, date, and place. That same material is also searchable via the Lomax Geo Archive, an ingenious tool that, with the aid of customized Google Maps, lets you retrace Lomax’s itinerary point by point and listen to the field recordings from each stop. (The above link is centered on Port-of-Spain, but you can resize and/or recenter the map on any locale.) There’s also a special feature on Lomax’s work in Grenada and Carriacou, and a little searching and sifting turns up all of Growling Tiger’s performances at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival.
So why aren’t other archives—at universities, research libraries, the BBC, the CBC—doing (more of) this? They’re all sitting on collections that, if they were only made freely accessible, could enrich the world’s cultural patrimony. You can supply the answers: not enough money, not enough staff, not enough resources. (I get it: I work at a state-funded institution savaged by repeated budget cuts, too.) Copyright mazes. Possessiveness. Inertia. Etc., etc. But ultimately it’s a matter of institutional will. Copyright? There are workarounds, there are people of good will, there’s public shaming. Money, staff, resources? Crowd-source it—either the financing and/or the labor. (There are plenty more scholar-drones like me out there who’d be glad to do some “hive” work in The Cloud.)
And you private collectors: ars longa, vita brevis. You can’t take it with you. It couldn’t be easier to start a blog. Channel your OCD into something beneficial. Get to work sorting, scanning, and digitizing, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a week. I’ll begin:
- Carnegie Hall program booklet, “Cla-Mac of Trinidad Inc Presents | Its First in a Series of Authentic Calypso Concerts | On Sunday Evening, Oct. 12th, 1947; 8:30 p.m. Sharp | At Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Ave.”
- Flyer, “People’s Songs Inc Presents | The Midnight Special at Town Hall | A Series of American-Folk Music Concerts under the Supervision of Alan Lomax | Calypso at Midnight | Gerald Clark and Band | Lord Invader | Duke of Iron | Macbeth the Great | Town Hall, Saturday Dec. 21, 11:30 p.m. [illustration by David S Martin]”
L-R: New York Amsterdam News, 3 May 1947 | New York Amsterdam News, 15 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk) | New York Times, 30 November 1947