Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

  • Recently Minted

  • Spent Dollars

  • Search the Treasury:

  • Denominations

  • Creative Commons

Archive for January, 2014

Peter Pan, or: Seeger and the Steelband

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 31, 2014

A follow-up: in my last post, I mentioned (parenthetically) Andrew Martin’s excellent “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band“—and I related (in a footnote) Ray Funk’s reference, made in an online kaiso discussion group, to a video of Seeger performing Growling Tiger’s “Money Is King.”  Ray plans to screen that video in Trinidad next month, and as far as I know it hasn’t surfaced online.  But later in the day yesterday, another member of the same discussion group quietly posted a link to the lovely short film that emerged from Seeger’s 1956 visit to Trinidad, “Music from Oil Drums.”  (Several different users have put the film up on YouTube, as it turns out.)  Here it is:

Also circulating in the YouTube universe is Kim Loy Wong’s appearance on Seeger’s short-lived, mid-60s television show Rainbow Quest:

Andrew and Ray have been collaborating on pan history in the U.S. for some time now, and I don’t want to steal their thunder.  (Among their more recent work is a great series of short articles for the Trinidad Guardian, the latest of which have appeared in the past few weeks.)  For now I’ll just relate that Seeger produced two of Wong’s albums for Folkways Records (Kim Wong and his Wiltwyck Steel Band and The Steel Drums of Kim Loy Wong), and in 2011 Hollis Clifton interviewed Wong for When Steel Talks about his first meeting with Seeger and the early days of pan in New York.

Posted in Andrew Martin, Kim Loy Wong, Pete Seeger, Ray Funk | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pete Seeger and Calypso for the 99 Percent

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 28, 2014

There will be gallons—oceans—of ink spilled on Pete Seeger today, justifiably so, and I’ve got nothing of real substance to add.  But it’s worth remembering, incidentally, how much Seeger and “People’s Songs” influenced the way Americans thought of calypso.  At a time when campy covers of “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” topped the charts, Seeger promoted calypso not as pop music but people’s music.  As he saw it, calypsonians weren’t purveyers of commercial ditties; they were tribunes of the folk who spoke truth to power and gave voice to the grievances of the downtrodden.  (Calypsonians themselves weren’t so sure it had to be an either-or proposition, but that’s a story for another day.)

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lord Invader. Afro-American (National Edition), May 4, 1946.

People’s Songs and its successor People’s Artists featured calypso not just at the famous 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at New York’s Town Hall, but also at their long-running “Hootenannies,” where Sir Lancelot, the Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, and Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie) are all known to have performed throughout the 1940s and 50s.

If there was one calypso that truly passed into the consciousness of the Folk Song movement, it was Lord Pretender’s 1943 anti-racist anthem “God Made Us All,” which Invader brought with him when he came to New York in 1945 to sue for copyright infringement over “Rum and Coca-Cola.”  As Seeger tells it, Invader once showed up unannounced at a “hoot” and wandered backstage to ask how he could help. Drafted to sing at the next event, he performed Pretender’s song, which was so well received that its lyrics were printed in the next issue of the People’s Songs newsletter.1 Lead Belly soon recorded the tune with additional lyrics of his own, although the track wasn’t issued until decades later, and Seeger himself accompanied Invader (on banjo) in a performance recorded at that May 1946 Hootenanny.  (On a related note: Andrew Martin recounts Seeger’s advocacy for pan in the U.S., beginning in the 1950s, in “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band.)2

Of the thousands of folk songs that Seeger sang and composed throughout his long life, one of his favorites was friend and fellow traveller Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”  For most Americans, calypsonians and the music they made were exotic novelties.  For Pete Seeger, “this land” belonged to them, too.

[1] See People’s Songs 1.6 (July 1946): 6.

[2] The Lead Belly cover appears on the CD Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (Smithsonian-Folkways 40068/71, 1994).  (On the Smithsonian Folkways website, by the way, Jeff Place writes one of the best tributes to Seeger that I’ve yet read.)  Much of the preceding paragraph is adapted from the forthcoming Bear Family Calypso Craze box set, compiled and annotated by Ray Funk and Michael Eldridge. On the “Limers” discussion list after this post was first published, Funk mentioned a video clip in his possession of Seeger performing Tiger’s “Money Is King.”  Not surprising, perhaps, given Seeger’s lifelong leftism (make that “small ‘c’ communism“); even near the end of his life, he marched in solidarity with 2011’s “Occupy” movement.

Posted in Calypso at Midnight, Lord Invader, People's Songs, Pete Seeger | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Reblogging: Lancelot’s Island (The “Lost” Gilligan Calypso)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 22, 2014

Russell Johnson

Russell Johnson (from

I felt a pang of nostalgia last week, reading the obituary of actor Russell Johnson, and not only because my wife and I, soon after I took my first full-time academic job, went to a costume party as The Professor and Mary Ann.  No; as a kid I loved me some Bob Denver and some Jim Backus (Oh, Magoo! You’ve done it again!), but the woodenly hunky Johnson was secretly my favorite cast member of Sherwood Schwartz’s goofy ’60s sitcom.

Johnson’s passing leaves Dawn Wells and Tina Louise as the last survivors of the seven stranded castaways. Coincidentally, Louise’s engagement at New York’s Le Cupidon in June 1957 marked the end of that club’s six-month-long “calypso” policy (and the beginning of the end of the Calypso Craze). But strangely, as it turns out, that’s not the only Gilligan-calypso connection.

Geoff Dunn, who made the brilliant documentary Calypso Dreams a few years back (he’s reportedly “exploring” the possibility of a sequel–Yes, Please!), recently wrote a piece for the Trinidad Express which was picked up today by HuffPo and  The upshot: an intriguing footnote in television history and in the life of calypsonian Sir Lancelot (Lancelot Pinard), whose long career in radio, movies, and TV had plenty of odd twists already.  A score for the WWII anti-war cartoon “The Disillusioned Bluebird,” voice work as a bongo instructor on Father Knows Best…to these we can add “singer of the Gilligan’s Island theme song.”  Not the  bouncy ballad that most of my generation can belt out by heart (“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…”), but a calypso-esque version penned by Schwartz for the unaired pilot.

I’ve 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 read for yourself.  But since he doesn’t embed any of the pirate videos of the show’s original opening credits floating about on the YouTube seas, I will:

Posted in Geoffrey Dunn, Gilligan's Island, Sir Lancelot | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

%d bloggers like this: