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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Halloween Edition: Get Back, Jo Jo

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 31, 2013

The popularity of the Walking Dead franchise ensures that hoary old stereotypes about “voodoo” won’t be going to their grave any time soon—even if, these days, “the zombie” has been abstracted into a generic horror figure of unspecified origin and no fixed address.

Still, in the wake of Laurent Dubois’s Times Op-Ed piece on reparations (“Paying the Price of Caribbean Slavery“), I’m even warier than usual of perpetuating pernicious stereotypes about vodun.  Truly ridding the world of the legacy of slavery, Dubois affirms, would of course involve owning up to colonial history and committing to deep structural changes in global economics.  But it would also mean “ending the continuing mistreatment and stereotyping of Haitians, who were the pioneers in the overthrow of slavery and have been paying for it ever since.” And “[in] Europe and the United States, it would mean abandoning condescending visions of the Caribbean” in general (along with “building policies on aid, trade and immigration based on an acceptance of common and connected histories”).

When it comes to portraying African religion in the New World without disdain, calypsonians’ record isn’t exactly spotless.  Sir Lancelot’s participation in Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie 1 can perhaps be excused by invoking Bhabhian “ambivalence” and construing the film as a story of colonial chickens coming home to roost.  Still—notwithstanding a few  faithful performances of “Shango” chants scattered throughout the Decca catalogue—the roster of Golden Age calypsos ridiculing Shango, obeah, “voodoo,” and so on is long enough to constitute a significant subgenre, and the ubiquitous “Zombie Jamboree” (debuted by Lord Intruder in 1953) is probably the least malign item on the list.2

Here, in spite of my misgivings, is another entry, a little-known number by the Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), the Trinidadian émigré active in the U.S. between the 1930s and the 1960s. Unlike the Duke’s many recordings for Decca, Disc/Stinson, and Monogram (he also waxed sides for Varsity, Apollo, RCA Victor, and Prestige, among others), this one, “Jo Jo Zombie (The Voodoo Man),” is a rarity, released by the Titan Music Publishing Co. of Montclair, New Jersey—and it’s also not so much a calypso as a primitivist novelty song.  I haven’t been able to turn up the slightest trace of Titan on the web, so  I’m going to assume for the moment that this is an “orphaned” recording.  None of the nice folks at the Montclair Public Library or the Newark Public Library’s New Jersey Information Center can find a listing for the company in the Montclair city directory before 1953 or after 1957.  If any collectors or discographers out there have further clues, I’d be happy to receive them.  (And if anyone can present a credible claim to copyright, I’ll gladly take this down.)

titan1102b

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  1. A sensationalist trailer for the film and Lancelot’s performance of the “Fort Holland Calypso Song” are both available on YouTube.
  2. Ade Ofunniyin provides a patient introduction to the southern U.S. incarnation of vodun, “conjure,” in the Charleston Chronicle, “A Telling Tale of a Conjurer’s Travesty,” reblogged on Repeating Islands.
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One Response to “Halloween Edition: Get Back, Jo Jo”

  1. […] Halloween Edition: Get Back, Jo Jo […]

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