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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Library & Archives’ Category

Clear the Way for Caresser’s J’ouvert

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 2, 2014

rockheads-caresser-cropLord Caresser isn’t known for his carnival tunes.  Sure, there’s “Carnival Is We Bacchanal” and “Clear the Way When the Bamboo Play,” and maybe even “Hold Your Hand, Madame Khan”—fine tunes, all of them, though as road marches go, they don’t have the legs of a “Matilda” or a “Mary Ann” or a “Don’t Stop the Carnival.”  And that’s okay: Caresser’s strong suit, after all, is the playboy boast.  (Besides, anybody who pens a classic like “Edward the VIII” has a secure spot in the kaiso pantheon.)  But when you’re looking for a leggo, you go to King Radio, not the King of Hearts.

Still, there’s one other carnival calypso buried in the trove of Caresser typescripts at Library and Archives Canada that’s worth a listen.  (Well, a look, technically; there’s no lead sheet, so we have to imagine the melody.)  And as it’s Carnival Weekend—even now, I’m struggling to watch Panorama finals in 15-second bursts over’s hammered servers—I thought I’d share it.

It exists in two versions, with two different choruses and two different titles—”Carnival at Maraval” and “Jour Ouvert Morning”—and there are no clues as to its date of composition, although an apparent allusion to pan implies postwar.  (Unlike many others in the collection, which came from George Robertson, Caresser’s producer at the CBC in the late 1940s, it’s not a topical number on a Canadian subject, so it doesn’t necessarily derive from Caresser’s time in Montreal.  It may not even be his own work, for all I know, and I’d be glad for anyone who can set me straight on that point.)  As the first title would suggest, the tune is about the singer’s visit to Maraval for carnival—Christmas Day or Boxing Day, respectively, not Shrovetide—where it turns out those creole bumpkins really know how to play mas!  The city-slicker’s enthusiastic impressions fall back on a number of hackneyed tropes: music that drives you mad, old ladies who exclaim in patois, colorful locals with eccentric names.  But they also include some genuinely striking evocations of the procession’s rustic charms:

The drums and the tin-pan
Beat back any modern string band
The greeter [sic] and the dust-bin
Ten times sweeter than a violin
The pieces of iron nearly made me groan
Making more notes than a saxaphone

Even the chauvinistic wink that rounds off the lyric (those Maraval girls…am I right?) is built around an original juxtaposition of refined and rude: “The City girls they are full of bliss/But the Country girls got the stupidness.”  

Anyway, as visions of bacchanalian oblivion go, this one is almost pastoral.  Makes me want to join that fête.  

Revelers: on J’ouvert morning, I’m sure you won’t need Caresser’s “Martiniquan woman” from Maraval to remind you that “wee, ebien wee, jourdwee say fete.”  But maybe you can find a melody for his chorus:

Mama mama
If you hear me die, don’t cry
Don’t cry, but let the anthem swing
Clear the way on Jour Ouvert Morning


Posted in Calypso, Carnival, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Uncategorized | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 5, 2012

Tibor Kalman, "Colors 4 (Race)"

Tibor Kalman, Black Queen Elizabeth. From Colors 4 (Race), 1993. ©M&Co.

Charles Roach

Charles Roach (photo: Colin O’Connor for the National Post)

With all the hoopla this week surrounding Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee, it’s worth remembering that there are plenty of folks throughout her dominions who aren’t celebrating (or who, like Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, just aren’t happy being someone else’s “minion”).  In the Dominion of Canada, for example, veteran civil rights activist Charles Roach has long sought to alter that country’s Citizenship Oath, which requires new citizens to swear allegiance to the British monarch (who is technically the Canadian head of state).  Because of his refusal to take such a pledge, the Trini-born Roach, who has lived in Canada since 1955, remains a permanent resident rather than a citizen.  Although his legal challenges to the oath were rejected by a federal appeals court in 1994 and by the Ontario Superior Court in 2007, Roach, a member of the bar since 1963, is now once again arguing its constitutionality before the provincial court.

A story about this latest round in his fight (which he’s effectively conducting from his sickbed, battling cancer and stroke at the same time) appeared last Wednesday in the right-wing National Post—and immediately drew a handful of hair-raising comments from unreconstructed Monarchists and United Empire Loyalists suggesting that if they don’t like it in Canada, Roach and the rest of “these immigrants” ought to go back to the “hell holes” they came from.

In spite of its much-vaunted multiculturalism, Canada has a history of such bigotry, state-sponsored as well as petulant and personal (see “Domesticating the West Indies in Canada,” Part 1 and Part 2).  If immigrants insist on coming, some Canadians have felt, then it would be much more tolerable if they would just shut up and wave their flag (Union Jack, not Maple Leaf).

That sentiment, as I discovered when I was researching the history of Lord Caresser (Rufus Callender) in Canada (see “Caresser in Canada,” “My Visit to Ottawa,” and “Canada So Cold“), extended to calypsonians, too.  Here’s a relevant excerpt from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy“:

Hip Hooray for Liz

Toronto Daily Star, 28 November 1953

…To begin with, Canadians had long delighted in noting what they regarded as West Indians’ touching loyalty to the British monarchy, especially as expressed in calypso.  A newsreel in the collection of Canada’s National Library shows Prince Edward being saluted by “calypso dancers” on his 1925 tour of the Caribbean.  In 1939, a Canadian Press newswire story in the Toronto Star remarked that six months on, the calypsonians then in residence at “Manhattan’s smartest night clubs” were still “singing sprightly ballads to rhumba-like rhythms about the [recent North American] visit of the King and Queen,” and it approvingly cited a sample stanza: “The charming, gracious, and smiling Queen, / Is the prettiest woman I have ever seen. / She was dress in an outfit of blue, / And wave to the crowd as the car drove through.”  (A similar notice in late 1953 marking Elizabeth’s first visit to the Caribbean jovially quoted from the calypso that greeted her arrival in Jamaica, “Hip Hooray for de Gracious Queen.”)

These dispatches were nothing, however, compared to the flood of coverage that accompanied Princess Margaret on her month-long circuit of the Caribbean in 1955—the “Calypso Tour,” as it came to be known throughout the English-speaking world.  All of Canada’s major newspapers featured front-page stories replete with lavish photo spreads and maps of Margaret’s itinerary, beginning in the run-up to her arrival and continuing well past her return.  “Trinidad’s Steel Bands Prepare for Princess,” shouted a headline in the Globe and Mail on January 31:  “Each band hopes to win approval and be chosen to play for the Princess.”  Indeed, claimed the Toronto Star, the “happy natives” of Trinidad, particularly its “colorfully garbed native dancers,” had been anxiously preparing for her visit for months.  Meanwhile, the Globe divulged, “Calypso writers have already produced a torrent of words extolling the virtues of the Royal visitor,” and one, the Mighty Panther (Vernon Roberts), had been chosen to “put his message across personally at a carnival in the grounds of Government House.”  (The paper reproduced the entire text of Panther’s laudatory lyrics in the next day’s edition.)

Calypso’s wartime displays of loyalty to Crown and Empire came in for special treatment.  A plummy profile of Caresser in the entertainment weekly Applause tried to establish his patriotic bona fides with the spurious claim that he had served in the army, entertaining the troops—British, American, or West Indian, it wasn’t clear.  “Many a soldier who blithely ignored the printed V.D. notices was sent scurrying to the medico by Caresser’s warbled warnings,” it grinned, “and the progress of the war was duly noted [by Caresser] in numbers such as ‘Hitler and the Rich Ukraine,’ [and] ‘Watch Out, Japan.’”[1]

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country.  A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario.  The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene.  But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily.  “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands.  “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[2]

[1] Hughes, Betty. “We Meet the Lord….” “Chez Montreal” column.  Applause February 1947: 18.
[2] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.  The story’s bad faith is compounded by the wartime files of the Immigration Branch at Library and Archives Canada, which are filled with hundreds of rejected applications by West Indian men who wished to come to Canada and train with the armed services.  “[T]he Royal Canadian Air Force hesitates to encourage [Applicant X] to make the long and expensive trip from Port of Spain, Trinidad, in view of the possibility that he may either fail to qualify for enlistment or that his enlistment cannot be effected as a result of the requirements being filled,” went a typically mealy-mouthed reply to a query on an aspiring serviceman’s behalf.  “If [X] should decide to come to Canada [to a Recruiting Centre], the journey must be made at his own expense with no assurance that he will be accepted into the Royal Canadian Air Force…” (RG 76, File 471, Item 721432).

  • See also Gordon Rohlehr on “Calypso and the Ideology of Empire” (pp. 182-6) and “World War II and Its Aftermath” (esp. pp. 316-355) in Calypso & Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, as well as Ray Funk’s discussion of “reverential” royal-themed calypsos in his “In the Battle for Emergent Independence” in Anthurium 3.2 (2005).
  • Listen to Young Tiger’s “I Was There (at the Coronation)” and Beginner’s “Queen Elizabeth Calypso.”
  • An interview with Charles Roach aired on the the June 4th edition of the CBC’s Connect with Mark Kelley.  (Move the slider to 47:09.)

Posted in Canada, Charles Roach, Citizenship Oath, Immigration Policy, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Mary Churchill, Queen Elizabeth II, Racism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

“My Visit to Ottawa”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 4, 2009

I spent the past few days in Ottawa, which is neither the staid provincial backwater it still apologizes for being (“Montreal is our mistress,” a Canadian diplomat confided to me on my last visit, in answer to my query about the city’s nightlife) nor yet—in spite of Canada’s official state multiculturalism—a cosmopolitan capital.  Its transitional status is indicated by the usual hopeful signs: the cabbies are Arab and Pakistani; there’s a bustling Little Saigon (that would be “Asian Village” in Ottawan); and you see a whole lot of women sporting headscarves, not only because of the cold.  And of course, thanks in large part to the proximity of Gatineau, Québec, just across the river, you still hear a lot of French on the streets.  Also at the National Library and Archives, where most of the hard-working staff seems to be of the francophone persuasion, and where I whiled away the majority of my waking hours.

(The post-prandial, pre-somnolent hours I spent mainly on the edge of the desperately trendy Byward Market, sitting at the bar of the Black Tomato, where General Manager/co-owner/genius loci Stephen Flood plays barman, DJ, and purveyor of carefully selected avant-garde jazz CDs.  The sometime photographer and music journalist oversees a hip, happy and efficient floor staff and an even happier clientele.  Plus, he has excellent taste in beer.)

Anyway, all this—along with the good cheer of the Manx pub, the superb charcuterie & cheese at Murray Street restaurant, an early-morning run along the Rideau, and the occasional urban surprise (a newsstand/tobacconist called “Mags & Fags,” soldiers in full-dress kilts emerging from the armory near my hotel)—is what marked my stay in Ottawa.

Since my first morning at the Archives, though, I’ve also been haunted by an earlier visitor to Ottawa, circa 1947, who was quite self-consciously bringing some worldly sophistication to the burghers of Bytown, and who recorded his impressions in a calypso:

Lord Caresser, "My Trip to Ottowa"

Lord Caresser, draft manuscript of "My Trip to Ottawa" (ca. 1947). Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 12

Far away from my Montreal home
To Ottawa I went to roam
I didn’t want to go but by chance I went
It was the happiest day in my life I spent.

Everybody was proud and glad
To see the roving lad from Trinidad

As I landed at Union Station
The crowds started a mass invasion
Photographers snapping photographs
Bobby-soxers rushing for autographs.

Smilingly I wended my way
And checked in the Chateau Laurier
With the crowd still following shouting
Three cheers for the calypso King.

As I drove around the Capital City
The scenic beauty attracted me.
I saw Parliament Buildings first of all
Then I paid a call on Rideau Hall.

I saw the Mint then had a view
Of the historic Peace Tower to[o]
Rideau Canal is fine to see
But the drive has a heavenly scenery

I came back to Montreal that night by train
But bet your life I am going back again
For the welcome I had will remain
In my memory for me to retain.

That’s “My Visit to Ottawa” by Rufus Callender, a/k/a Lord Caresser.  Lyrically speaking, not one of the Roving Lad’s strongest efforts.  Still, I’m delighted by the image of Caresser disembarking at the old Union Station (a grand experience no longer available, thanks to the epidemic of urban-planning idiocy that swept across North America in the 60s, making easy marks of rubes like Ottawa’s city fathers, who succeeded in crippling their station but not killing it) and casually strolling across the street to size up the luxurious Hôtel de la Gare.  And while I take it as read that Caresser’s account is full of his trademark embellishments—I’m guessing Frank Sinatra himself would have been lucky to be greeted by throngs of bobby-soxers in 1947 Ottawa, for example—you have to love the conceit of him taking a detour from his touristic itinerary to pay a courtesy call chez le Gouverneur général, as any visiting dignitary naturally would.  I suppose you’re also obliged to appreciate the historical irony that nowadays, as Canadians are proud and eager to tell you, the occupant of Rideau Hall is an Antillean-born woman (who also once worked for the CBC), Michaëlle Jean.

Lord Caresser, "Calypso!" (booklet)

Lord Caresser, promotional booklet (1951). Library and Archives Canada: George Robertson Fonds, Container 24, File 7

The draft of “My Visit to Ottawa” above is one of dozens of manuscripts and typescripts of Caresser’s lyrics contained in the George Robertson fonds at Library and Archives Canada.  Robertson, who died in 2000, had a long career as a radio and television writer, and in the late 1940s he worked as a producer at the CBC International Service, where he evidently had a hand in the program that Caresser hosted between 1946 and 1948.  (See my earlier post on “Caresser in Canada.”)   His collection was the one thing I was most looking forward to seeing at the national archives, and it didn’t disappoint: in addition to the trove of lyrics, at least half of them for calypsos that Caresser composed during his early years in Montreal, the fond held a handful of sheet-music manuscripts and the complete typescript of one episode of “The Lord Caresser Show.”  What I never expected to find, though, as I first made my way across town on streets named for various Imperial Lords, Princes, and Dukes (Elgin, Albert, Wellington), was that the very “Lord” I’d come to research had put his own imprint on these streets some sixty years earlier.

So who needs a grand welcome?  I was just “proud and glad / To [find] the roving lad from Trinidad.”

Posted in Black Tomato, Calypso, Calypsonians, Library & Archives, Lord Caresser, Ottawa, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »

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