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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Chenk’s Calypso: The Duke of Iron on the Air

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 7, 2014

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson).  PM, 27 June 1940.

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson). PM (New York), 27 June 1940.

When I first wrote about Oscar Brand’s patronage of calypso back in November 2013, I hadn’t yet visited the New York Public Radio Archives, whose pleasantly cluttered offices take up the back corner of one floor of NYPR’s new (well, comparatively new) headquarters on Varick Street in SoHo.  On a trip there in January, I discovered—with a huge assist from Director Andy Lanset and Senior Archivist Marcos Suiero Bal—that Brand wasn’t the first at WNYC to help boost calypso’s fortunes.  Before the war, a progressive young producer named Henrietta Yurchenco (“Chenk”) showcased the Duke of Iron on at least a half-dozen installments of Adventures in Music before giving him his own show, Calypso, over the fall and winter of 1940-41.

Andy came up with a notebook containing about 20 scripts for Calypso that Yurchenco left to the station—she died in 2007—while Marcos, with help from Andy and the Smithsonian’s Jeff Place, tracked down a broadcast transcription of one of the shows.  (It was made by Moe Asch, who regularly set up his Presto in front of the radio and recorded off the air onto acetate discs.  Over several decades, he amassed a few thousand hours’ worth of such recordings.) I penned a few paragraphs contextualizing the program, and WNYC posted the whole package to their blog on April 25th.  The indispensable Repeating Islands kindly picked it up a few days later.

The free version of WordPress still won’t let you embed most audio players, and I don’t want to steal WNYC’s thunder anyway.  So, first:

There’s lots more calypso-related material in the Archives, and with Marcos and Andy’s indulgence, I’ll be contributing two more posts about it to the WNYC blog.  In the meantime, since I can afford to be a bit more reckless with graphics (and more profligate with words) than they can, here are some additional supporting materials for the first post.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra, with vocals by the Duke of Iron, "Walter Winchell."  The charismatic columnist and radio commentator ("Flash!") was a favorite with calypsonians.  The admiration was mutual: Winchell sometimes plugged the singers in his columns.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra; vocal by the Duke of Iron, “Walter Winchell” (Varsity 8130, 1940). The charismatic columnist and radio commentator (“Flash!”) was a favorite with calypsonians. The admiration was mutual: Winchell plugged the singers in his columns.  This tune and three others were recorded in December 1939, at the end of the Calypso Recorders’ initial ten-week run at the Village Vanguard. You can “watch” it on YouTube.

The first page of Paul Kresh's draft script for "Adventures in Music," June 27, 1940

The first page of Paul Kresh’s draft script for “Adventures in Music,” June 27, 1940

PM (New York), 30 July 1940. The figure behind the mask is probably Bill Matons, a/k/a “The Calypso Kid” (later “Calypso Joe”), a Wisconsinite who abandoned a career in modern dance for his own brand of interpretive “calypso” dance, and who led a small troupe that accompanied Gerald Clark and the Calypso Recorders at the Vanguard shows.  A pantomime performed to Atilla the Hun’s famous “Roosevelt in Trinidad” was one of his staples. Matons also claimed to have coached the calypsonians in dramatic technique, and he may have served as the entire group’s business manager as well. For WNYC’s “Calypso” he was a sort of liaison, taking listener requests and suggestions.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The "Calypso Kid" (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke for this engagement.  Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The “Calypso Kid” (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke on this engagement. Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

Finally, see an article in the April 8, 1940 issue of Life magazine entitled “Old Calypso Songs from Trinidad Are Now Becoming a U.S. Fad,” which includes a photo of the Duke of Iron with clarinetist Gregory Felix and an unidentified figure, possibly at the Village Vanguard.

Sources and acknowledgments:

The quotes in the opening paragraph of the WNYC blog piece come mainly from Henrietta Yurchenko’s 2002 memoir Around the World in 80 Years, though the “microphone from a monkey wrench” crack is taken from a 1999 interview with Emily Botein on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday.  Additional biographical details were gleaned from obituaries in the New York Times and the London Guardian.

Other factual information in my account is drawn from archival research and contemporary periodicals, though like every calypso researcher I’m deeply indebted to the pioneering work of Don Hill, in particular his 1993 book Calypso Callaloo and his 1998 essay “‘I Am Happy Just to Be in This Sweet Land of Liberty’: The New York City Calypso Craze of the 1930s and 1940s,” and to the meticulous research of John Cowley, especially his 2006 essay “West Indies Blues.”

Big thanks once again to Andy Lanset and Marcos Sueiro Bal at the NYPR/WNYC Archives for their generous hospitality (and, to Marcos, for his deft editing).  Thanks, too, to Jeff Place at Smithsonian Folkways and to the staff of the New York Public Library, especially those at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the research collections of the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

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