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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘People's Songs’ Category

Pete Seeger and Calypso for the 99 Percent

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 28, 2014

There will be gallons—oceans—of ink spilled on Pete Seeger today, justifiably so, and I’ve got nothing of real substance to add.  But it’s worth remembering, incidentally, how much Seeger and “People’s Songs” influenced the way Americans thought of calypso.  At a time when campy covers of “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” topped the charts, Seeger promoted calypso not as pop music but people’s music.  As he saw it, calypsonians weren’t purveyers of commercial ditties; they were tribunes of the folk who spoke truth to power and gave voice to the grievances of the downtrodden.  (Calypsonians themselves weren’t so sure it had to be an either-or proposition, but that’s a story for another day.)

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lord Invader. Afro-American (National Edition), May 4, 1946.

People’s Songs and its successor People’s Artists featured calypso not just at the famous 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at New York’s Town Hall, but also at their long-running “Hootenannies,” where Sir Lancelot, the Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, and Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie) are all known to have performed throughout the 1940s and 50s.

If there was one calypso that truly passed into the consciousness of the Folk Song movement, it was Lord Pretender’s 1943 anti-racist anthem “God Made Us All,” which Invader brought with him when he came to New York in 1945 to sue for copyright infringement over “Rum and Coca-Cola.”  As Seeger tells it, Invader once showed up unannounced at a “hoot” and wandered backstage to ask how he could help. Drafted to sing at the next event, he performed Pretender’s song, which was so well received that its lyrics were printed in the next issue of the People’s Songs newsletter.1 Lead Belly soon recorded the tune with additional lyrics of his own, although the track wasn’t issued until decades later, and Seeger himself accompanied Invader (on banjo) in a performance recorded at that May 1946 Hootenanny.  (On a related note: Andrew Martin recounts Seeger’s advocacy for pan in the U.S., beginning in the 1950s, in “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band.)2

Of the thousands of folk songs that Seeger sang and composed throughout his long life, one of his favorites was friend and fellow traveller Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”  For most Americans, calypsonians and the music they made were exotic novelties.  For Pete Seeger, “this land” belonged to them, too.

[1] See People’s Songs 1.6 (July 1946): 6.

[2] The Lead Belly cover appears on the CD Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (Smithsonian-Folkways 40068/71, 1994).  (On the Smithsonian Folkways website, by the way, Jeff Place writes one of the best tributes to Seeger that I’ve yet read.)  Much of the preceding paragraph is adapted from the forthcoming Bear Family Calypso Craze box set, compiled and annotated by Ray Funk and Michael Eldridge. On the “Limers” discussion list after this post was first published, Funk mentioned a video clip in his possession of Seeger performing Tiger’s “Money Is King.”  Not surprising, perhaps, given Seeger’s lifelong leftism (make that “small ‘c’ communism“); even near the end of his life, he marched in solidarity with 2011’s “Occupy” movement.

Posted in Calypso at Midnight, Lord Invader, People's Songs, Pete Seeger | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Art D’Lugoff, Jazz (and Calypso) Impresario

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 15, 2009

Art D'Lugoff in 1993

Art D'Lugoff in 1993 (photo credit: Fred Conrad for the New York Times)

The news spread quickly around the jazz blogosphere last week that Art D’Lugoff, founder of New York’s legendary Village Gate, was gone at age 85.  Lee Mergner honored him at Jazz Times and Sam Stephenson marked his passing at Duke University’s Jazz Loft Project, while Marc Myers gave a salute at JazzWax and Patrick Jarenwattananon offered an appreciation at NPR’s A Blog Supreme.  The latter linked to a New York Times story from October 2008 about D’Lugoff’s re-emergence from retirement to help with programming at Le Poisson Rouge, the forward-thinking Village venue that now occupies the space of D’Lugoff’s old club.

No question: D’Lugoff was a motive force behind a pivotal epoch in jazz history.  But his musical interests were catholic: the Gate was famous for its eclectic pairings (his obituarists remember D’Lugoff for his “Salsa Meets Jazz” series, in particular), and his role in, say, fostering the 1960s Folk Revival was every bit as big as the part he played as a custodian of hard bop and post-bop.  And lest we forget: “Folk Song,” for the generation that preceded D’Lugoff, the internationalists of the 1930s and 40s, included forms like—you guessed it—calypso.  Sir Lancelot stumped for Henry Wallace, for example, while Lord Invader recorded for Moe Asch’s Disc (and later, Folkways) label.  Both were at times pulled into the circle of Pete Seeger and People’s Songs, who produced (among other things) the famous series of “Midnight Special” concerts at New York’s Town Hall, some of which showcased calypso, and one of which was documented on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight.  (Kevin Burke offers an account of that show at his splendid website, The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)

Steel Band Clash Flier

Flier for a 1956 concert produced by Art D'Lugoff (courtesy Art D'Lugoff)

Art D’Lugoff wasn’t part of People’s Songs:  he was too young, for one thing, and by the time he became professionally active, the Songsters were being hounded by HUAC.  Still, he was a fellow-traveler, and Seeger & Co. made an impression on him; in any event, like them, he saw calypso’s popular appeal.  By the mid-1950s he, too, was producing calypso concerts, first as part of his own “Midnight Special” series (a moveable feast at the Actor’s Playhouse and elsewhere), then as “Calypso at Carnegie”—two, three, and sometimes four shows a week, for ten solid months from August 1956 through May 1957.  During this period his Festival Productions also managed and promoted several West Indian acts, including the Duke of Iron, Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie, who wrote or co-wrote most of Harry Belafonte’s Calypso album), Lloyd Thomas, Johnny Barracuda, Massie Patterson, and Muriel Gaines, as well as the Virgin Islands Merrymakers and Rudy King‘s “King Rudolph’s Trinidad Steel Band,” between whom he frequently staged “Steel Band Clashes.”

I had the pleasure of talking with D’Lugoff one Spring morning in 2003, in the kitchen of his upper West Side apartment, a spacious place filled with books, music, memorabilia and file cabinets.  Our conversation was interrupted by a steady stream of phone calls and doorbell buzzes, and like the rest of the world, we were distracted by certain other external events, as well.  (That very day, the warmongers in Washington were marching into Iraq; two days later, 300,000 New Yorkers would march down Broadway in protest.)  But D’Lugoff was delightfully voluble, eccentric, and generous, just the same; whenever he remembered something in his files that I must have, he would hastily excuse himself, then reappear a minute or two later with yet another manila folder or sheaf of photocopies hot off the industrial-strength xerox machine that occupied most of the pantry.

I’m away from home and my own file cabinets for a spell, and consequently I don’t have access to my interview tapes and transcripts.  Until I get back to California, then, have a look at this excellent interview with Marc Myers (Part 1 | Part 2).

Brochure for Festival Presentations

Brochure for Festival Presentations, 1957 (courtesy Art D’Lugoff)

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Posted in Art D'Lugoff, Calypso, Folk Song Revival, New York Nightclubs, People's Songs | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

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