Working for the Yankee Dollar

Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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About this project

I’m a professor, scholar, and calypso fan based at Humboldt State University in northern California. (During Fall 2009, when I started this blog, I was a Fulbright Scholar studying race, culture, and national identity at the Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.) I’ve been researching and publishing on the cultural significance of calypso’s North American travels for the past dozen years or so, with the generous support and encouragement of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College Chicago, and now Fulbright. If you look hard enough, you can find my work in journals like Callaloo, Transition, and Anthurium.

I’m a relative piker in the field, though, and I’m deeply indebted to the work of pioneering calypso scholars such as Errol Hill, J.D. Elder, Gordon Rohlehr, Hollis (“Mighty Chalkdust”) Liverpool, Daniel Crowley, Don Hill, Keith Warner, John Cowley, and Ray Funk.  (Not to mention crack discographers like Dick Spottswood and Richard Noblett.)  In the last decade alone—particularly in the past five or six years—a whole slew of exciting work on West Indian culture has appeared by people like Louis Regis, Mimi Sheller, Harvey Neptune, Jocelyne Guilbault, Garth Green, Shannon Dudley, Kevin Birth…and a bunch of other folks I’ll name-check in future posts.

I’ve started this blog mainly in order to have a place to collect and organize materials related to a book I’ve been working on (on and off, mainly off) for much too long  now.  Its tentative title, Working for the Yankee Dollar, comes from Lord Invader‘s “Rum and Coca-Cola,a calypso which, if they know it at all, most people know as one of the twentieth century’s more notorious examples of cultural theft.  But even if, after all the legal dust settled, Invader liked to perform the tune as a vindication of his infringed intellectual property rights, I think he was also expressing (among other things) the wrily ambivalent relationship that a whole generation of calypsonians carried on with their  friendly, local, hemispheric hegemon.   I’ll be using this space to lay out some of the facts of that relationship—and occasionally to offer some analysis.

Although it’s long since been upstaged by its Jamaican cousin reggae, calypso has had a sort of overlooked staying power in the North American imagination.  In the middle decades of the 20th century, in particular, it made several fleeting but significant forays into the continent’s pop consciousness, at moments that coincided with social upheavals of more global consequence.   I’m interested in elucidating what was happening in those brief, curious affairs, in figuring out what sort of cultural work was being performed.  It seems that on the one hand, the U.S. (and to a lesser degree Canada) was periodically borrowing an “exotic” culture as a backdrop against which to compose certain unsettled aspects of its own identity, mainly by symbolically containing what it figured as racialized threats, both domestic and foreign.  Calypsonians, meanwhile, cannily, delicately, and not always successfully tried to shape and mould their culture in order to deflect that sort of co-optation, to make an end-run around nativist racial categories—and, in the bargain, to secure black diasporic culture’s passage into an emerging transnational order.

If that last bit reads like a mouthful, don’t worry:  I’ll try to keep that sort of talk to a minimum here.  And I would of course welcome comments, corrections, and emendations to anything I post on this blog.  Thanks for reading.

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