Chenk’s Calypso: The Duke of Iron on the Air
Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 7, 2014
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:
- Read about the Duke of Iron’s earliest appearances on WNYC (and listen to an excerpt from the show). Then:
- Listen to the full 15-minute broadcast of the February 1, 1941 edition of Calypso. And while you’re at it:
- Check out the Duke’s performance on the February 15th installment of the 1941 American Music Festival, “Music of the Caribbean.”
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.
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.