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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Moe Asch’ Category

Ivan Chermayeff

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 7, 2017

This blog has been dormant for a long time, and I can’t explain why it’s rousing itself for this story, particularly—but then again I can’t say why not, either.  The inspiration was really just one of those casual coincidences: yesterday I had occasion to speak by phone with two of the peerless staff at the Rinzler Archives of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I’m writing about Lord Invader’s years in the United States and his involvement with Popular Front politics and culture, and I had some questions about unreleased material from Invader’s recording sessions for Folkways Records in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Among other things, the Rinzler houses the Moses and Frances Asch Collection, and Invader cut dozens of sides for Moe Asch between 1945 (when he came to the States to pursue a copyright claim to “Rum and Coca Cola”) and 1961, committing his final tracks to tape a few months before his untimely death.

Between them, labels run by Asch and Emory Cook, whose collection also wound up under the Rinzler’s roof, issued some of the most significant bodies of recorded calypso of the mid-twentieth century; together those labels form the core of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, which keeps the Folkways and Cook catalogs in print (well, print-on-demand) in their entirety and occasionally mines them—and their associated archival collections—for new compilations. (In fact, John Cowley compiled an essential selection of Invader’s output for Moe Asch for the 2000 CD Calypso in New York, Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40454.)

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That evening, as I belatedly leafed through the day’s newspaper before bed, I came upon Margalit Fox’s obituary for famed graphic designer Ivan Chermayeff, who created iconic logos for (among others) Chase bank, Mobil Oil, New York University, and…the Smithsonian.

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In the 1950s, Chermayeff cut his teeth designing album covers for Columbia, Command, and others—but not for Cook or Folkways. No calypso albums, either, as far as I know. The universe is rarely that liberal with its coincidences.

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Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Ivan Chermayeff, Lord Invader, Moe Asch, Smithsonian Folkways | Leave a Comment »

The Real Sam Charters

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 21, 2015

The New York Times rightly eulogized Samuel Charters this week as a “foundational scholar of the blues.” Other obituaries emphasized his “discovery” of Bahamian guitar wizard Joseph Spence in 1958. But enthusiasts of Golden Age calypso will remember Charters as the compiler and annotater of The Real Calypso: 1927-1946 and The Real Calypso, Vol. 2 (variously subtitled Send Your Children to the Orphan Home and Out the Fire: Calypso Songs of Social Commentary and Love Troubles), which rescued forgotten classics like Caresser’s “Edward the VIII” and Tiger’s “Money Is King” from oblivion and paved the way for a golden age of calypso reissues. (Rounder’s collections of the 1990s and Bear Family’s magisterial West Indian Rhythm [2006] all have Samuel Charters in their DNA. And maybe the Charters lineage hasn’t run out: it’s rumored that another big box gathering the rest of the prewar Decca and ARC sides is in the works. Yes please!)

The author and ethnomusicologist was a lifelong devotee of music from across the black diaspora, so he came by his interest in calypso honestly. (In fact, I’ve read that Charters happened upon Spence when, as a song collector and field recorder for Moe Asch‘s Folkways Records, he was traveling the Caribbean in search of local musical styles “uncorrupted” by the influence of Trinidadian calypso.) But he wasn’t necessarily a scholar—or even a discographer—of calypso. The bulk of his “annotations” on Volume 1 consists of a multi-paragraph quote from J.D. Elder‘s calypso primer for Sing Out! magazine, and when Charters flew solo on Volume 2, it was clear that his own expertise didn’t match his, uh, elder’s. (On basic points of information, moreover, he was factually incorrect: the majority of tunes on the album were not recorded in Trinidad, for instance, but in New York.) Still, the strength of both discs is in their selection, not their documentation.

In his biography of Asch, Making People’s Music, Peter Goldsmith noted that “[l]ike Harry Smith’s Anthology [of American Folk Music] and Fred Ramsey’s History of Jazz series” (Ramsey, whom Charters knew, was another calypso fan and annotater, by the way), The Country Blues and many subsequent records on Charters’s Folkways subsidiary label RBF—Records, Books and Film, including both volumes of The Real Calypso, “consisted of reissued recordings from the twenties and thirties, usually appropriated without any arrangements with the original labels. . . . Charters made the dubious claim that ‘the American copyright laws permit the reissue of any of these older performances, the only restriction being that the name of the company not be used in any notes or advertising'” (269).

In the case of calypso, at least, I’m glad he made that claim. For one thing, the aptly named Universal, heir/engulfer/devourer of the Decca label, has more than enough money already, even in the twilight of the record industry. Besides, Decca paid the calypso singers and musicians peanuts to begin with, as “artists-for-hire.” And none of the succession of Decca’s corporate foster parents over the past half-century has ever been what you could call a steward of this important cultural patrimony. Plus, Capitalism Is (still) Killing Music, not to mention scholarship. So there. Anyway, let’s call what Samuel Charters did “liberation,” not appropriation. Whatever it was, it wasn’t dubious: his lifelong work for black music history was as real as it gets.

More on Sam Charters:

Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Moe Asch, Samuel Charters | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Chenk’s Calypso: The Duke of Iron on the Air

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 7, 2014

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson).  PM, 27 June 1940.

The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson). PM (New York), 27 June 1940.

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:

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.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra, with vocals by the Duke of Iron, "Walter Winchell."  The charismatic columnist and radio commentator ("Flash!") was a favorite with calypsonians.  The admiration was mutual: Winchell sometimes plugged the singers in his columns.

Gerald Clark and His Calypso Orchestra; vocal by the Duke of Iron, “Walter Winchell” (Varsity 8130, 1940). The charismatic columnist and radio commentator (“Flash!”) was a favorite with calypsonians. The admiration was mutual: Winchell plugged the singers in his columns.  This tune and three others were recorded in December 1939, at the end of the Calypso Recorders’ initial ten-week run at the Village Vanguard. You can “watch” it on YouTube.

The first page of Paul Kresh's draft script for "Adventures in Music," June 27, 1940

The first page of Paul Kresh’s draft script for “Adventures in Music,” June 27, 1940

PM (New York), 30 July 1940. The figure behind the mask is probably Bill Matons, a/k/a “The Calypso Kid” (later “Calypso Joe”), a Wisconsinite who abandoned a career in modern dance for his own brand of interpretive “calypso” dance, and who led a small troupe that accompanied Gerald Clark and the Calypso Recorders at the Vanguard shows.  A pantomime performed to Atilla the Hun’s famous “Roosevelt in Trinidad” was one of his staples. Matons also claimed to have coached the calypsonians in dramatic technique, and he may have served as the entire group’s business manager as well. For WNYC’s “Calypso” he was a sort of liaison, taking listener requests and suggestions.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The "Calypso Kid" (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke for this engagement.  Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

The Duke of Iron (center) and his Trinidad Calypso Troubadors, preparing for an engagement at the Pago Pago Club, New York, January 1941. The “Calypso Kid” (Bill Matons; see above) and his dancers joined the Duke on this engagement. Credit: New York Journal-American Photo Morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Special thanks to Linda Briscoe Myers.

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.

Posted in Duke of Iron, Moe Asch, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Happy Birthday to Moe!

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 2, 2010

December 2d is the 105th birthday of Moses Asch, founder of Folkways records and the man responsible for bringing many top-notch calypsonians to the attention of American audiences on the Disc, Stinson, and Folkways labels from the mid-1940s through the early 60s.  More in this post from last May and at Smithsonian Folkways, from whose site I nicked the above image.

Posted in Disc Records, Moe Asch | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Mess-A-Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 9, 2010

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams (with Moe Asch, seated, in the mirror?). From the Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Last night, my friend Dan Aldag led the HSU Jazz Orchestra in a fantastic concert of works by Mary Lou Williams—including some amazing charts that Williams scored for the Ellington band but that Duke apparently just sat on.  The show was one of dozens of events around the country marking the centenary of the great composer and arranger’s birth.

I think I’ve proven that I’m not above stretching to make an unlikely connection between kaiso and just about any other subject you could name.  But while Mary Lou Williams was one of the most stylistically versatile composers in the history of American jazz, she never, in her long and productive career, pulled a Sonny Rollins (or a Randy Weston, or a Hazel Scott, or…).  Not that she couldn’t have.  Williams was also one of the most influential and well-connected figures in the history of American jazz.  As Dan reminded the audience last night: her New York apartment was like the Jazz Loft before there was a Jazz Loft.  Everybody who was anybody came by to hang out there and drink in the atmosphere.  Among those whose careers she fostered and whose composing she nurtured were fellow pianists like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk—and Herbie Nichols, whose idiosyncratic writing did in fact draw on the music of his West Indian (Trinidad and St. Kitts) parents, among other sources.

I don’t know how many degrees of separation to score that as, but I think I can get even closer.  In the early 40s, Williams began a long, loyal, and fruitful association with Moe Asch, founder of Asch, then Disc, and finally Folkways Records.  Asch was never known for his business acumen, and he could be an irascible skinflint.  But his dedication to documenting “folk” music—and for Asch that umbrella covered jazz and blues as well as all sorts of ethnic, folkloric, and lefty “people’s” music—was unstinting, and to Williams he was extraordinarily devoted; he gave her the sort of money, studio time, and artistic latitude that he afforded few others, at least not consistently.  Asch’s stable in the 1940s also included a number of calypsonians: at various points he recorded the U.S.-based Sir Lancelot, the Great MacBeth, and the Duke of Iron, as well as Lord Beginner and (most famously) Lord Invader.  For a time, as biographer Peter Williams tells it, Asch’s studio became a kind of “open house” for musical cross-fertilization, a place where Woody Guthrie would rub shoulders with Leadbelly, Sonny Terry…and Mary Lou Williams.  While this never produced a Mary Lou Williams-Lord Invader mashup, it did put her on wax with both gospel singer Nora Lee King and folk singer Josh White, a good friend with whom she had often shared the bill at Café Society in Greenwich Village.

(Asch was also tight with the fellow travelers of the People’s Songs collective, although he was a bit standoffish about their political platform.  The Songsters, whose numbers included Alan Lomax, Charles, Pete, and Toshi Seeger, and a host of likeminded singer-songwriters, are famous in calypso circles for having produced the 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at Town Hall in New York.  That show was part of the long-running “Midnight Special,” a series of sit-down concerts which complemented their more freewheeling “Hootenannies.”  At the latter, Lord Invader shared the stage with Josh White and other folk and blues singers on more than one occasion.)

Mary Lou Williams Trio

David Stone Martin's album cover for the Mary Lou Williams Trio (Asch Records, 1944)

Williams’s calypso connection is more prosaic, or rather, graphic.  One of the artists she introduced to Asch wasn’t musical but visual: her friend and former lover (there seem to have been many men in Williams’s life who fit that description) David Stone Martin.  Martin would become an iconic figure in American graphic design, in large part for his distinctive album cover art: his 1950s jazz covers for Mercury, Clef and Verve practically defined the genre.  But his talents were first employed by Asch, whose records acquired an instantly recognizable visual identity courtesy of Martin’s singular pen-and-ink style.  Martin’s first work as Asch’s art director was, unsurprisingly, on a Mary Lou Williams album.  But he knew how to catch the feel of calypso, too.

Disc Calypso albums

David Stone Martin's covers for Disc 614 and 628, "Calypso," vols. 1 & 2

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Further Reading:
Linda Dahl, Morning Glory: A Biography of Mary Lou Williams (U of California P, 2001)
Tammy L. Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Northeastern UP, 2004)
Mark Miller, Herbie Nichols: A Jazzist’s Life (Mercury Press, 2009)
Peter D. Goldsmith, Making People’s Music: Moe Asch and Folkways Records (Smithsonian, 1998)

Posted in David Stone Martin, Disc Records, Mary Lou Williams, Moe Asch | Tagged: , , , , , | 5 Comments »

 
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