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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

Fidel Castro

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 27, 2016

In 1959, Lord Invader celebrated the fact that every once in a while it’s the revolutionaries, not the reactionaries, who surprise the world.

An internationalist of long standing, Invader recorded “Fidel Castro” for an album on Moe Asch‘s New York-based Folkways label (Calypso Travels, FW 8733) that also included denunciations of the segregationist governor Orval Faubus (“Crisis in Arkansas“) and the racist “Teddy Boys” then terrorizing Blacks in Great Britain (“Cat-o-Nine Tails,” a cover of the “Teddy Boy Calypso” he’d released in England earlier that year). The shorter, slicker version of “Fidel” above, however, is from a children’s record (!), Brown Boy in the Ring, made around the same time. The rowdier version from Calypso Travels can be heard in an unauthorized upload to YouTube here.

“For many in Latin America, Africa, and the rest of the Third World, Castro achieved giant-slayer status by standing up to the United States and supporting independence and social movements around the globe,” writes Peter Kornbluh in The Nation (December 19/26, 2016). In spite of his subsequent “authoritarianism and often repressive rule, Castro’s “vision, action, and principles of international revolutionary solidarity indisputably transformed his country from a small Caribbean nation under the thumb of US hegemony into a major independent actor on the world stage.” That–together with what historian Greg Grandin called the “joyful, raucous, and brash” nature of Castro’s revolution–is what endeared him to fellow travelers like Invader.

Posted in Calypso, Folkways Recoreds, Lord Invader, New York City | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Oscar Brand, 1920-2016

Posted by Michael Eldridge on October 2, 2016

oscarbrand

It seemed like he’d live forever.

Posted in Oscar Brand, WNYC | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Anniversary LXXX

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 14, 2016

This blog has been dormant for a long time. Not deliberately; it’s just—well, you know. Connect the dots. Fill in the blank.

Anyway, reading about the 50th anniversary of the legendary Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (originally the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, the group has held a regular Monday night gig at the Village Vanguard since February 7, 1966) got me thinking about an unkept promise from last May, when I noted that three institutions who played big roles in promoting calypso in North America were all celebrating milestone anniversaries in the same year. (I only ever got around to writing about one of the three.)

The VJO doesn’t haven’t an especially close connection to calypso, of course. Okay: there’s Jim McNeely’s “305,” named for his former street address in…Crown Heights? Flatbush?…anyway, he claimed the tune’s West Indian feel came from rhythms he’d heard in his old Brooklyn ‘hood. (He eventually recorded it with the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra.) And Bob Mintzer’s “Antigua,” a samba-flavored calypso included on the VJO’s 2002 release, Can I Persuade You:

But that’s about all I can dig up, calypso-wise, in the band’s five-decades-long songbook.

The Vanguard itself is an altogether different matter. Among Max Gordon’s most successful early bookings were the “Calypso Recorders,” a cabaret-style revue built around Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders and vocalist the Duke of Iron, with accompaniment by Bill Matons, a lefty modern dancer whose small troupe interpreted the Duke’s calypsos with pantomimed masked dramas. (Popular Front types had lately begun adopting New York-based calypsonians as fellow travelers, thereby imbuing calypso with a certain bohemian cachet: Clark, for instance, had already been tapped to provide music for The New Masses annual ball later that year, while Wilmoth Houdini had recently concluded a run at Barney Josephson’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)

New_Masses_Duke_Ball

The Vanguard show—which started in late August 1939, at a moment when calypso 78s were flying off the shelves of mid-Manhattan music shops (Clark’s was the backing band on most of them; hence his insistence on being billed as the Recorders)—ran three times nightly, and it was such a hit, with enthusiastic notices in BillboardVariety, and all the New York dailies, that at the end of ten weeks, Gordon signed Clark for another ten months. He continued to book calypso periodically all the way through the 1950s.

292869_65edeb1492da44ee8e8713df4cc5a9cf

My lack of follow-through on this post was due in part to sheer peevishness. A year ago I spoke on the phone with what journalists would call a “high-ranking official” at the Vanguard, who told me that business records and other ephemera from the old days were scarce, but warmly offered to let me peruse the club’s booking “bible”—containing names and dates of headlining artists—and suggested, tantalizingly, that there might be other “ledgers” I could look at too. But when I followed up a few months later, in preparation for a summer visit to the city, I got the cold shoulder.

No matter. The Village Vanguard’s own website features several great pieces of calypso ephemera, including the above handbill. I’m writing about some of the reviews as part of a chapter on calypso’s embrace by the American left in the 1940s. In the meantime, here’s a photo of Matons, a/k/a The Calypso Kid (he later made a career as “Calypso Joe”), performing the pantomime to “Edward VIII” that he introduced at the Vanguard in 1939:

NYJA_Trinidad_Calypso_003_crop

Bill Matons, publicity shot for an engagement at New York’s Pago Pago Club, January 1941. (New York Journal-American photo morgue, Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin)

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, New York City, New York Nightclubs, village vanguard | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Anniversary XC

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 18, 2015

By strange coincidence, three institutions that played important parts in the spread of calypso in North America are marking big anniversaries this year—every one a good round multiple of ten: The New Yorker is 90, the Village Vanguard 80, and Radio Canada International 70. I hope to post about all three before the year is out, and today I start with the eldest.


For calypso researchers, The New Yorker is famous for one thing: “Houdini’s Picnic,” a profile of Wilmoth Houdini, the self-crowned king of New York calypsonians, that appeared in the issue of May 6, 1939. Its author, the legendary Joseph Mitchell, had recently joined The New Yorker as a staff writer after a star turn at the World-Telegram; “Houdini’s Picnic” was one of his earliest pieces for the smart-set weekly.  It’s a classic of its type: part character sketch, part urban chronicle—a type that, as it happens, Mitchell practically invented. “He was drawn to people on the margins,” comments Charles McGrath, reviewing a new biography of Mitchell: “bearded ladies, Gypsies, street preachers, Bowery bums, Mohawk steelworkers, the fishmongers at the Fulton Market.” But his tone is mostly curious and sympathetic. A “great noticer” and a “careful listener” with a superb ear for dialogue, Mitchell was a sociologist at heart, “genuinely interested in his subjects as human beings, remarkable because they so vividly demonstrate that one way or another we are all a little weird.” There is “no kitsch in his portraits,” adds current New Yorker editor David Remnick, introducing Up in the Old Hotel, the definitive collection of Mitchell’s writing for the magazine. By contrast, the Journal-American‘s H. Allen Smith, like many of Mitchell’s rivals and imitators, saw people “as ‘characters,’ and mined them for their colorfulness” (McGrath again). Smith’s portrait of Houdini, “Hot Dogs Made Their Name,” which appeared a year later (and was collected in Low Man on a Totem Pole), is arch and condescending. Where Mitchell is deadpan, Smith is jokey. Mitchell’s Houdini is rough-edged and well-spoken. Smith’s is a buffoon.

Joseph Mitchell wasn’t the only one of Harold Ross’s staff writers to cast an interested eye upon New York’s West Indian community.  As early as 1928, “The Talk of the Town” took an excursion to Van Cortland Park in Riverdale—er, the Bronx—to look in on the “group of West Indian Negroes” who congregated there on Sunday afternoons to play “an unusually beautiful game of cricket” (and speak an equally “beautiful brand of English”).  (J.M. Flagler would return in 1954 to write a long profile of West Indian cricketers in New York, “Well Caught, Mr. Holder“; Edith M. Agar and Brendan Dealy checked in once more in 1988.)  In the course of keeping up with “Exotic Harlem,” meanwhile, Pauline Emmet in 1930 schooled herself on West Indian-American cuisine: “The West Indian Negro…will scarcely look at a chicken,” she pronounced. “What he likes are yams, yucas, papayas, and things like that.”

And music? As I mentioned last month, it’s a safe bet that the Renaissance Ballroom’s house band, led by Vernon Andrade, wasn’t only supplying swing tunes for the 5000 masquerading Lindy Hoppers and Suzy-Q’ers at the West Indian “Coronation Ball” that Earl Brown visited in 1937. By December 1938 the magazine’s anonymous popular record reviewer, always abreast of emerging trends, was recommending “selected West Indian discs” as a last-minute Christmas gift for “friends who will be diverted by the curious rhythmic outbreaks in dialect from the Calypso singers.”  He began with a representative five, but as Decca had already issued “almost a hundred of these native naïvetés,” some of which seemed “shrewdly manufactured for the tourist trade,” he referred “Calypso collectors”—they were a thing—to midtown’s Liberty Music Shop for “[e]xpert first aid.”  By the following year, Steinway & Sons Record Shop, also in midtown, was advertising its own recommendations…

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

Ad for Steinway & Sons Record Shop, New Yorker 2 December 1939

…and Houdini was back on the radar of the magazine’s unnamed reviewer, who led off his December 30th column with a notice for the album advertised above, Houdini’s—and calypso’s—first. (Heretofore, he explained, “Calypso songs, by which the natives of Trinidad comment informally on whatever events of the moment strike their fancy…have been casually released on single discs.” But they have “caught on so successfully during the brief time they’ve been available in this country that now Decca has come out with a three-record set.”)

When calypso began to be featured at Cafe Society and the Village Vanguard in the summer of 1939, it naturally showed up in “Goings On About Town,” and eventually the Vanguard even took out small ads:

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

The New Yorker 11 May 1940

In 1941, Robert A. Simon was amused by the calypso that Belle Rosette (Beryl McBurnie), who had debuted at the Vanguard in December 1940, sang at one of Louise Crane’s high-concept “Coffee Concerts” at MOMA—a “South American Panorama” that also featured Elsie Houston, the Grupo Incaico, and a Haitian “Rada” group.  (“Some of the visitors may have expected terribly primitive revelations,” quipped Simon, “but the event was no more aboriginal than a good floor show.”) Belle Rosette’s offering “began with international topicality and ended with something about Bach and Toscanini discussing Calypso music.” If that report seems a tad flip, then Simon at least conceded, after a lame attempt of his own, that “manufacturing Calypso lyrics isn’t so simple as one might expect.”

Houdini’s swan song for The New Yorker was in 1944, when he made an uncredited cameo in an ad for Bell Telephone, which had begun overseas long distance service to Trinidad earlier that year (and nicked the image in the lower lefthand corner from the cover of Houdini’s above-mentioned album for Decca). Note the nod to the “Good Neighbor” policy.

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

New Yorker, 14 October 1944

The last New Yorker writer to engage with New York’s West Indians in a spirit akin to Mitchell’s was J.M. Flagler, who twice in the mid-50s called upon cricketer, Con Ed clerk, and amateur composer Joseph Willoughby as his native informant: once to comment on the West Indian Day Parade, then held on 7th Avenue in Harlem, and again to weigh in on the 1957 Calypso Craze. On the latter occasion Willoughby, who with his partner, Harlem M.D. Walter Merrick, wrote “Run, Joe,” a 1947 hit for Louis Jordan, was equivocal: “On the one hand, I stand to profit personally,” he conceded, as his songwriting services were once again in demand and three recordings of his older calypsos had been reissued. “On the other hand, I fear that the cause of calypso is not being well served artistically.” Make that cricketer, clerk, composer…and diplomat.

In more recent years, the keen and versatile Hilton Als, who joined The New Yorker in 1994, and who, in the words of Coco Fusco, was reared in Brooklyn “by uppity Caribbean matriarchs,” can be counted on periodically to shed light on things West Indian and West Indian-American (“Notes on My Mother,” excerpted from his memoir, The Women, is an early example)—although it was Ian Frazier who wrote on the Brooklyn Labor Day j’ouvert parade back in 2010.

newyorker-90th-int-2

Kadir Nelson’s cover—one of nine—for the 90th Anniversary issue of the New Yorker (via the It’s Nice That blog). Any chance Eustace has some classic calypso loaded on that smartphone?

 

 

Posted in Calypso, Calypsonians, Harlem, New York City, New York Nightclubs, The New Yorker, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Harlem’s Calypso Renaissance

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 20, 2015

Another landmark gone. The New York Times recently reported that Harlem’s Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, which for years was literally a shell of its former opulent self, is now rubble. (Last December, the Times covered local preservationists’ last-ditch efforts to stop the demolition. A more hopeful story appeared back in 2007.)

Together with its neighboring Theater, the Casino and Ballroom took up an entire block of 7th Avenue between 137th and 138th Streets, on the edge of Strivers Row. Built in stages between 1921 and 1923, the “Renny” touted itself in its grand opening announcement as having been been “built by Colored capital, and owned and managed by Colored people.” Paul Robeson sang there; Oscar Micheaux’s films debuted there; Armstrong, Henderson, Ellington, Basie, and Calloway played there; and Joe Louis fought there. It was also the home of legendary basketballers the Harlem Rens.

Renaissance Casino & Ballroom, 7th Avenue at 138th Street (looking north), Harlem, ca. 1930

From DigitalHarlem.org

Screenshot from DigitalHarlem.org

But the Renny wasn’t just a Harlem cultural mecca, it was a West Indian Harlem cultural mecca. Its founding partners were three businessmen from Antigua and Montserrat, Garveyites who believed in Black self-sufficiency. The Rens basketball team owner was from St. Kitts. For years the Casino’s house band was the Vernon Andrade orchestra, remembered now as a “Latin” band (when it’s remembered at all). But like many Harlem dance bands of the day, Andrade’s played a variety of styles: hot jazz, swing, rumba, mambo…and calypso. Andrade himself, as I learned from Lara Putnam’s Radical Moves: Caribbean Migrants and the Politics of Race in the Jazz Age, was a Panamanian born to West Indian parents. According to his trombonist Clyde Bernhardt, “[h]alf of Andrade’s band was West Indian,” and Bernhardt’s uncle derided the bandleader as a “monkey-chaser.” In 1937, the New Yorker mentioned Andrade providing the music for a massive “Coronation Ball” at Rockland Palace, and it seems unlikely that the 5000 attendees, “most of them West Indians and loyal Britons,” would have marked George VI’s accession to the throne with non-stop rumbas. Indeed, Andrade, “one of the few [bandleaders] from the Islands who has solved the riddle American swing,” in the opinion of the New York Amsterdam News, played “Sly Mongoose” “as a regular part of his repertoire” in 1939. (A footnote: Lara Putnam also writes that in the mid-1930s, a full decade before she covered Wilmoth Houdini’s “Stone Cold Dead in the Market,” a teenage Ella Fitzgerald sang with Andrade’s band at the Renny two or three nights a week.)

For two decades, at least—possibly longer; my newspaper searches haven’t been exhaustive—the Renaissance was also the venue of choice for Trini expat Gerald Clark, the preeminent West Indian bandleader in New York, and his protégés, the Duke of Iron and Macbeth the Great. While the three also headlined nightclubs, concert halls, and private parties in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx throughout the 1940s and 50s, and while they naturally made the rounds of other Harlem ballrooms (Rockland Palace, Park Palace, the Savoy, the Audubon, the Congress, the Golden Gate), they kept coming back to the Renny. The first of Clark’s annual “Dame Lorraine” costume balls actually took place at the Lido Ballroom in January 1934, but just a month later his Caribbean Serenaders performed at a Washington’s Birthday Ball at the Renaissance, and from then on it was Clark’s “go-to” venue. His dances drew hundreds, often thousands, of patrons. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins, who as a young child lived on 137th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, remembers going with his mother “to a lot of calypso dances,” very likely right around the corner.

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 21 February 1934 (courtesy Ray Funk)

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

New York Amsterdam News, 2 March 1946

“The Renny hosted events for island benevolent societies,” says Putnam, as well as

West Indies–wide reform groups, and race-based organizations, like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, that counted both Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans among their members. British Caribbean migrants in interwar New York routinely belonged to organizations across all these categories: and the Renny was their place. Events included a mass rally in support of the jailed Marcus Garvey in 1923; a “monster mass meeting” of the West Indian Reform Association in 1924 to commemorate the ninetieth anniversary of (West Indian) emancipation and discuss “vital issues affecting the islands”; and an invitation-only 1930 gala to welcome a Jamaican cricket team brought north “to improve the game in New York.”

In July 1947, Wilmoth Houdini chose the Renaissance for a Harlem edition of the Calypso “Pop” Concerts that had sold out Carnegie Hall in May and June. A marquee event previewed by all the Black papers nationwide, its teaser was a calypso monarch competition featuring Lord Invader, Macbeth the Great, the Duke of Iron, and the Count of Monte Cristo (the Duke’s brother). As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not known who won or even who judged the contest, but winning probably wasn’t the point anyway. The advance publicity was apparently enough to draw jazz writer and photographer William Gottlieb, who shot a series of striking photos now at the Library of Congress. (I’m speculating somewhat, but the stage and balcony visible in Gottlieb’s photos seem to jibe with interior shots of the ruins of the ballroom that I’ve seen online.)

1947 07-12 Afr-Am Houdini et al Ren Cas

Afro-American (National Edition) 12 July 1947

The last Renaissance Ballroom clipping currently in my collection is for a Labor Day Carnival dance September 7, 1953, with music by Macbeth and his Rhythm Boys. What more logical place to retire to after a parade down 7th Avenue? Macbeth celebrated all the holidays there, it seems:

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve

Poster for an all-night Christmas Eve “Breakfast Dance,” 1949

IMG_0426 (corrected)

Poster for Bastille Day Ball, 1950

Closed in 1979, the Renny sat empty and derelict for decades, although its social and cultural significance made it a prime candidate for landmark preservation status. Unfortunately, that designation would have made things difficult for powerful real-estate developers, to which detractors accuse the property’s owners and nominal caretakers, the neighboring Abyssinian Baptist Church, of selling out. (In 2010, the ABC demolished another neighbor of equal historical importance and greater architectural distinction, the “annex” of the 137th Street YWCA, where in April 1945 the Duke of Iron produced the first large-scale, sit-down calypso concert in New York, possibly with visitors from Trinidad including Lord Beginner, King Radio, Tiger, Lion, Atilla, and/or Lord Invader.)

More on the Renaissance Theater, Ballroom and Casino:

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Gerald Clark, Harlem, MacBeth the Great, New York City, Sonny Rollins, Wilmouth Houdini | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Horn-Tooting

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 1, 2015

My family and I spent part of New Year’s morning watching the Pasadena Tournament of Roses Parade on TV—largely because we have dear friends who help build some of the floats. (Go, Sierra Madre! Huzzah, Paradiso! In years past, we’ve been recruited to glue a flower or two, ourselves.) Sixty-two years ago today, the Rose Parade featured a float bedecked with Trinidadian dancers and singers who’d won a contest to represent the float’s sponsor, The March of Dimes, as ambassadors of its worldwide campaign to fight polio.  On the DVD contained in our Calypso Craze box set, Ray Funk and I included a short film documenting the group’s trip (the singers were known for decades afterwards as the March of Dimes quartet), and this morning I was reminded that I’d meant to post some supplemental materials to the set’s “Extra-Illustrated” website.

Here, for example, are eight seconds of home-movie video of the March of Dimes float (don’t blink!):

Next, courtesy of the New York Public Radio archives, you can hear the Trinidadians performing five days later on the steps of Manhattan’s city hall as part of a longer program broadcast on municipal station WNYC. (WordPress still won’t let you embed many audio players, unfortunately, but you can navigate to WNYC’s site via the link above and stream the entire program there.)

And finally, a grainy photograph and newspaper story from the Trinidad Guardian marking the performers triumphant return (thanks to Ray Funk):

modguardian1953

Speaking of Calypso Craze: the set has been out since August, and although we couldn’t organize a New York event in time for Brooklyn carnival, Ray will be down in Trinidad doing a carnival launch there in a few weeks. Meanwhile, New Year’s Day seems as good a time as any to toot our own horns.  Here are some of the reviews and features available online.

Web:

Radio:

  • Planet Fruit (Johannes Paetzold, Radio Eins)
  • WDR5 (Klaus Walter)
  • Stefan Maelck includes Calypso Craze (along with my hero Jeff Tweedy!) in the week’s “Take 5,” a selection of five notable new releases, on MDR Figaro (audio)

Print:

And (added February 23, 2015)

We appreciate the attention and the kind words.  Happy New Year!

Posted in Calypso Craze, March of Dimes, New York City, Rose Parade, WNYC | 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 »

Reblogging: Take Me, Take Me, Hazel Scott

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 25, 2014

Hazel Scott testifying before HUAC, September 1950. Photofest, via University of Michigan Press (Media Kit for Karen Chilton’s Hazel Scott)

Over at WNYC’s website, guest blogger Karen Chilton, author of an excellent biography of pianist Hazel Scott, introduces a segment that Scott recorded for “What America Means to Me,” a program that aired on Philadephia radio station WFIL in the early 1950s, on which the era’s “big names” were invited to “wax patriotic for three or four minutes.”  A Juilliard-trained prodigy “of dizzying talent,” Scott was equally at home in the jazz and classical worlds: early in her career, her act was billed as “Swinging the Classics.”  Yet as Chilton emphasizes, Scott used her three-and-a-quarter minutes to speak “not about Bach or boogie, but about bigotry,” in language that “toes the line between cautious and candid.”

Not cautious enough.  Scott’s critical brand of patriotism, like that of so many left-leaning entertainers of the day, ran afoul of Senator Joe McCarthy.  The former “Darling of Cafe Society” and star of radio, concert stage, and screen had recently become the first African-American to host her own television show, four years before Nat King Cole—but an investigation by HUAC was enough to lose her the gig.  Politics and personal life eventually drove Scott to France, where she remained for a decade.  She released two fine trio albums before she left, one in 1953 with Red Callender and Lee Young and another in 1955 with Charles Mingus and Max Roach.  But her years away grew increasingly troubled, and even after she rebounded (and returned to the States), her career never fully recovered.

Though raised in Harlem, Scott was born in Trinidad, and she called herself “an immigrant by choice.”  (WNYC titled its blog post “Say It Loud: Black, Immigrant and Proud.”) Back in 1943 the Associated Press wondered why Scott, who was pulling in $4000 a week in Hollywood when she wasn’t wowing the New York nightclub set, had “never attempted to popularize” calypso, even though she was reputed to own “one of the largest collections of calypso musical recordings in the country” and, after all, “specialize[d] in mixing cayenne pepper with the classics to produce an ecstatic brand of rhythm.”  Scott, who doubtless would have cringed at such patronizing language, modestly demurred that “Americans probably wouldn’t go for that particular brand of music.”  By 1957, of course, it was abundantly clear that they would, after a fashion.  And so Scott finally put her own brand on calypso, releasing a 45 rpm single on Decca with “Carnaval”—her cover of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” a road march associated with the Duke of Iron—on the A-side and “Take Me, Take Me”—recorded by the Keskidee Trio in 1935 as “Don’t Le’ Me Mother Know,” but also known as “Los Iros,” “Take Me,” and “Take Me Down to Los Iros”—on the B-side.  Sy Oliver led a raucous backup “carnival” band, and Scott herself handled the vocals (with help from an unidentified chorus).

You’ll find lots of Hazel Scott on YouTube, but not those tunes, sadly.  (Here, however, is one of the Duke of Iron’s recordings of “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and the Keskidee Trio’s original of “Take Me.”)  What else is on the interwebs, Hazel-wise—or on public radio’s share of the bandwidth, anyway?  Well:

Posted in Hazel Scott, Uncategorized, WNYC | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Calypso Weegee Board

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 17, 2013

Ugh.  I’ve just spent the better part of a Saturday trying—in vain—to figure out how to include a Pinterest “board” and/or a Flickr slideshow in this blog post.

WordPress promises that I “can easily embed [my] Pinterest profile, boards, or individual pins simply by pasting the links into any post or page.”  Only it turns out their easy instructions simply don’t work, and I’m not the only frustrated blogger who says so.  (Thanks, WordPress.)  Sadly, Pinterest’s slightly more complex instructions, which involve JavaScript, don’t yield any better results, despite one user’s cheery assurances to the contrary.

Ditto for Flickr: I’ve tried both WordPress support and this convincing-sounding gigya shortcode workaround, and the best I can come up with is a stubbornly empty black rectangle.  Fail!  Clearly these solutions have worked for at least some other bloggers (or in some instances, apparently, they haven’t worked…until they have), so maybe I’m doing something wrong or I just need to try one or two or twelve more times or Google Chrome is wonky or it’s a simple case of “your mileage may vary.”  I don’t know.  But I give up.

L-R: Count of Monte Cristo (George Anderson), MacBeth the Great (Patrick MacDonald), The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson), Houdini (Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks), Lord Invader (Rupert Grant). Prob. Renaissance Ballroom, New York City, July 1947. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.

All I wanted to do was find a good way to gather and display some of the great calypso photography from 1940s New York that’s scattered across the web.  I’ve already used one or two items from the huge trove that Down Beat writer/photographer William P. Gottlieb bequeathed to the Library of Congress; here’s another at left.  As far as I can tell, there are a baker’s dozen calypso-related items in that collection (not counting one reproduction of a finished Down Beat article), all of them dating from July 1947.  Nine were probably shot at a calypso monarchy competition staged at the Renaissance Ballroom; the other four at the Village Vanguard, where Josephine Premice was appearing with a small band.  You can view them all at LoC or on my Flickr slideshow.

While there are spoilsports who contest the “public domain” status of the Gottlieb material, I figure what LoC says, goes.  The disposition of some other photographers’ work is a bit cloudier.  For instance: both Lee Sievan and Weegee took candid shots of calypso performances (at clubs and private parties) as part of their documentation of the Naked City.  One print resides at the Met, a few more at ICP (and a few belonging to ICP, some of them duplicates, at Getty Images), others at commercial galleries, and twenty-some at the New York Public Library’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.  I’ve collected many of these on a private Pinterest board, although I’m not sure whether to go public with it, in part because I don’t care to be a serial “cease-and-desist” recipient.  On the one hand, a Pinterest “pin” is just a glorified link to another source.  On the other, it actually does entail reproducing an image from that source.  For its part Pinterest, in its Copyright and Usage policies, does all the requisite genuflecting to the DMCA, even though everyone knows perfectly well that its users’ pages contain practically nothing but copyrighted images.  Museums and galleries have themselves reproduced such images on their own websites with the dodge that “[i]mages are copyright of their respective owners, assignees or others” and/or that further reproduction requires permission of the Estate of the artist.  That weak statement of scruple doesn’t stop some of them from putting “Pin It” buttons on their web pages, though.

So where does that leave a poor, bewildered academic without a good lawyer?  Well, WordPress’s technical difficulties have mooted my quandary somewhat, at least for the time being.  But if you want to complicate things by joining the covert op, then here’s my “Calypso Weegee Board’s” secret location.

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Postscript: in late October, Pinterest struck a deal with Getty Images that addresses some of this—sort of.  Without really clarifying or even squarely acknowledging the copyright issue, Pinterest has given Getty an undisclosed sum for access to its photos’ metadata, in exchange for which Getty will evidently look the other way whenever I pin a Getty Image to one of my boards.  Pinterest gets to save face by saying this is all about making pins more “useful.”  (And Getty’s general counsel insists it’s not a “licensing arrangement.”)

Posted in Calypso, Lee Sievan, New York City, Weegee, William P. Gottlieb | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Brand-Name Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 14, 2013

Oscar Brand (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

Things have a way of hiding out on the Internet.  Case in point: these three-year-old YouTube posts of excerpts from a 1959 episode of Oscar Brand’s Folksong Festival.  The legendary lefty/balladeer/recording artist/author/producer’s program has aired weekly on WNYC since December 1945 (!)—which makes Brand a legendary broadcaster above all, I guess.  (And did I mention “nonagenarian“? Go ahead: think of anybody—anybody—in North American folk music over the past 70 years.  They’ve almost certainly been on Folksong Festival.)

Like his 1940s fellow travelers in “People’s Songs,” an organization to which, like all groups, he belonged only ambivalently, Brand has always taken a broad view of folk music, which means that he has occasionally showcased calypso on his program.  (He even wrote and sang one—”Small Boat Calypso”—for his 1960 album Boating Songs and All That Bilge.  I confess I haven’t heard it, though given Brand’s weakness for comic and bawdy songs, I wouldn’t want to vouch for its authenticity.)

The Duke of Iron’s first appearances on WNYC precede Brand by more than half a decade, and in his sophomore date on June 27th, 1940 (as reported by the left-leaning daily PM), the Harlem-based calypsonian unveiled an ode to the public station and its patron saint, Hizzoner:

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

P.M. (New York), 27 June 1940

Station WNYC
Yes, WNYC, it is owned by the people of N. Y. C.

[…]

You have heard of that great little fighter
And I mean our Mayor LaGuardia
Who for days and nights of much deliberation
Fought for the existence of his pet station.
We look up to him as the godfather
For without his aid we couldn’t get so far.
Through his efforts you would be glad to hear
We’ll be on the air for another year.

Still, given the Duke’s pre-eminence on the New York scene, not to mention his own occasional involvement with the People’s Songsters, it’s a safe bet that he eventually took part in Brand’s Festival, too.  [Update, April 2014: he did indeed—and more, besides.  Stay tuned.]

L-R: Josh White, Oscar Brand, Lord Burgess, ca. 1954 (WNYC Archives | ©WNYC)

At left is Brand with folksinger Josh White and calypsonian Lord Burgess, né Irving Burgie, the man behind Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song” and dozens of other Caribbe-ish tunes.  (The photo probably dates from around 1954, after Burgie had made an LP for Stinson Records and was playing a six-week date at the Village Vanguard.)  And below are the excerpts from that undated 1959 show, when MacBeth the Great was two years dead but his namesake Orchestra lived on, under the leadership of brother Pelham Fritz, who went on to a long career as a New York City Parks & Recreation official.  (Bandmember Claude “Fats” Greene would later take the helm before striking out on his own.)

The first tune is a cover of Sparrow’s prize-winning, animal-rights-oriented take on the Sputnik panic, “Russian Satellite.”  In the second, the band is joined by Lord Invader, who skewers segregationist Governor Orville Faubus in his original composition, “Crisis in Arkansas.”

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You can find “legitimate” archival audio from Folksong Festival at WNYC’s website.

Several items from Fats Greene’s discography on Cab & Camille records are also floating around on YouTube, and they’re all well worth a listen: “Justina,” “Senorita,” “Calypsorama,” and “Shake ‘M Up.”

Posted in Calypso, Duke of Iron, Lord Burgess, Lord Invader, MacBeth the Great, Oscar Brand, Uncategorized, WNYC | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

 
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