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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘1940s’ Category

Hello Americans: Orson Welles and Calypso, Pan-American Style

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 5, 2015

May 6th marks the Orson Welles centenary, and NPR had a story this past Sunday on the famous film director’s work for radio. Everyone knows about Welles’s notorious radio drama of The War of the Worlds; fewer remember that it was an episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air (see also the Digital Deli and Kim Scarborough’s tribute site), a weekly series for which Welles and his regular company of stage talents—John Houseman, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, et al.—adapted scores of literary works.

More obscure still: Hello Americans, Welles’s short-lived CBS radio series that plumped for FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy, combating U.S. provincialism and fostering cross-cultural understanding. That was the theory, anyway. Underwritten by Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, the series ran for a mere twelve weeks in late 1942 and early 1943 before it was cancelled. (Typically, Welles was…let’s say “stretched too thin” to supervise it properly.)

Orson Welles in Rio, 1942

These days, your average grad student in the humanities could pick all sorts of ideological holes in Hello Americans. But that’s no reason to doubt Welles’s good faith. A vocal anti-racist and a supporter of African-American writers, actors and artists, the wunderkind was hailed in the Black press as a “friend of the Negro.”  And even if the cynics contend that “Good Neighbor” was finally just a warm and fuzzy cover for an earlier Roosevelt’s Big Stick (or worse, the foundation for an imminent American imperium), nevertheless the New Deal internationalism that Welles peddled—sincerely—was essentially a Popular Front knockoff. Progressives of all stripes believed that the war against fascism must lead to the end of colonialism abroad and Jim Crow at home and to a radical realignment in the relations of power between the nations of North and South. “Good Neighbor”—a “shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane,” as Tom McEnaney puts it in a brilliant reading of Hello Americanswas a hemispheric head start on “One World.”

By 1942 you didn’t need to be Melville Herskovitz or Katherine Dunham to see African retentions forming the backbone of Pan-American culture, especially in the realms of music and dance. Plenty of people—artists, especially—were fascinated by what linked rumba and samba, calypso and “voodoo,” with spirituals, jazz, and blues. A year earlier, even Ed Sullivan, then an influential entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News, had taken his syndicated “Little Old New York” on a Pan-American junket, temporarily renaming it “Little Old New York In South America,” to find out for himself.

Calypsonians had been celebrating their own spanning of the hemisphere for some time already (see Lord Caresser’s “My Luxurious Life” and “Exploiting,” for example, or Lion and Atilla’s “Guests of Rudy Vallee“), and both Sullivan’s and Welles’s tours of the Americas included literal or figurative stops in Trinidad. Welles’s radio series visited twice, in fact, and on both occasions he was “met” by Lancelot Pinard, known professionally as Sir Lancelot.

Pinard’s résumé as a calypsonian wasn’t long, however. He came from a privileged background in Trinidad and was sent to New York to pursue medicine. But Pinard quit his studies after bandleader Gerald Clark heard him sing at a private party (he’d had classical vocal training) and invited Pinard to join his calypso revue at the Village Vanguard. At the same time, Pinard recorded two sides with Clark for Varsity, one of which, “G-Man Hoover,” became a novelty hit. When the Vanguard gig ended (wildly popular, it was extended for ten months), Pinard went on a nationwide tour and wound up in Hollywood. That location, along with his refined elocution, gave him some singular advantages in the U.S. market. When he appeared on Hello Americans, he was awaiting the release of his (and calypso’s) screen debut, the Mary Martin-Dick Powell comedy Happy Go Lucky.

Afro-American, 17 October 1942

Afro-American, 17 October 1942

Pinard was also a genteel radical. A member of the leftwing music collective People’s Songs, he recorded for Eric Bernay’s Keynote label (home of the Almanac Singers), famously set Henry Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man” speech to music, and campaigned for Wallace in 1948. In a 1941 profile by Ollie Stewart for the Afro-American, Pinard agreed that “there is a definite kinship between…the calypso of Trinidad, the tango of the Argentine, the rhumba of Cuba, the samba and conga of Brazil and jazz of the United States”—all of them rooted in the “rhythms of Africa…all contributed to their respective countries by ex-slave groups.”  “However,” Pinard continued,

calypsos have one distinction that sets them apart from other folk music, particularly that contributed by the American colored man. The white man has not (yet) muscled in and commercialized calypsos, to the exclusion of its originators, as he has done with American dance music and folk tunes. Trinidadians have refused to teach the calypso technique to white musicians.

That would change, soon enough. In the meantime, Sir Lancelot might demonstrate calypso for the ofay prince of Hollywood (“Ofays Slow to Grasp,” read the final subhead of Stewart’s piece), but no matter how sympathetic his politics, he wouldn’t show the Pan-American mediator, ventriloquist, and potential appropriator how to do it.

His first offering (from “The Alphabet: C to S,” 13 December 1942) starts out as an anodyne tourist-board ad, then transforms into a manifesto of Pan-American solidarity against fascist “men of tyranny” (move the slider to 2:18):


Next time, with Mexican singer Tito Guízar filling in for an indisposed Welles (“Ritmos de las Americas,” 3 January 1943), Lancelot called the “Sons of America” to arms to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor and fight for “the right to live in dignity, justice, and liberty” (move the slider to 5:40):


Lancelot would make his own tour of South America in 1946, by the way, and he would come home with a few interesting things to say. (He also offered a musical take on Pan-Americanism.)

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Further reading:

  • Hello Americans (Wikipedia)
  • Hello Americans: all twelve episodes at The Internet Archive, source of the above streams
  • Life Goes to Rio Party: Orson Welles frolics at Famous Mardi Gras” (Life 18 May 1942)
  • Joao Perdigao, “Citizen Samba
  • Tom McEnaney, “Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the ‘Good Neighbor'” (Sound Studies August 2013)
  • And, of course, the second volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles, also entitled Hello Americans

Posted in 1940s, Calypso, Good Neighbor Policy, Orson Welles, Pan-Americanism, Sir Lancelot | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

 
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