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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘New York City’ Category

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.


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.”


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 »

New York Healthcare Sings Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 7, 2013

I’m just back from an eight-day visit to New York City, where I heard plenty of jazz but no calypso.  I did have a kaiso encounter in a most unlikely place, though: not on the streets of Crown Heights or at the latest Calypso Rose concert (the New York transplant played Lincoln Center’s “Midsummer Night Swing” on June 29th; I had to miss it), but at a bus stop in leafy Morningside Heights, just two blocks from the gates of Columbia University.

“I Sing Calypso,” announces an amiable-looking, middle-aged, trilby-hatted man identified only as “Peter,” part of an outdoor ad campaign for Healthfirst New York:


The image and the declaration, amplified by the slogan “Plans to Sing About,” also grace the Medicare Advantage page of the Healthfirst website (screenshot below right)—and before you remark that this would not be the first time in the annals of American marketing that some mega-corporation cynically exploited the image of a photogenic black man for a bit of cute faux-populist messaging, let me hasten to add that other Healthfirst print ads and billboards I’ve seen feature people of color from all walks of life, many of them professionals.  A bus-stop ad on the next block, for example, had a bespectacled and bestethoscoped black doctor announcing, “I make house calls.”

Granted, the doc got a full name and a title, whereas Peter was just “Peter.”  (In other words, the usual honorific inequities of class and education apply.)  And given the fact that West Indians make up a big share of the nannies and doormen of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights, not to mention the support staff and maintenance workers of Columbia, one can’t completely rule out the possibility of pandering or condescending.  But because Healthfirst is a non-profit that works to provide immigrants and poor & working people of all colors with free and affordable healthcare plans, and because its ads appear throughout the New York metro area, sometimes in Spanish, Russian, and Chinese, I’m not eager, in the absence of a damning exposé, to question its multicultural bona fides.


Healthfirst has certainly gotten its money’s worth out of “Peter,” though.  He appeared in an earlier (Fall 2012) ad as “Peter P.” of the South Bronx, and his full identity was divulged in a 2011 press release about Healthfirst’s inaugural “Medicare Member Testimonial” campaign as Mr. Peter Phillips—who, as it happens, really is a calypsonian. (He brought up the rear in a rump competition—”Through the Eye of the Tobago Calypsonian“—held as part of T&T’s Independence Golden Jubilee in 2012.)

No disrespect to Mr. Phillips, then: no doubt he’s earned the right to represent the common man.  But maybe Healthfirst would consider approaching his fellow Tobagonian, one McArtha Linda Sandy-Lewis, a five-time Calypso Monarch who has also triumphed over a health scare or two in recent years, for an endorsement.  Now that would be something to sing about.  (“Gimme More…Coverage”!)

Posted in Calypso, Calypso Rose, New York City | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Premice Back in Print

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 15, 2013

premiceMost of what I know about Josephine Premice, you could find on Wikipedia.  (The rest, I stole from Ray Funk.)  Born in Brooklyn to wealthy Haitian-émigré parents, she studied dance with Martha Graham and Katherine Dunham and made her Broadway debut in 1945 in Dunham’s Blue Holiday.  (Like both her teacher and her contemporary Pearl Primus, Premice, too, studied anthropology in college.)  Just weeks earlier, she had appeared in Sierra Leonean choreographer Asadata Dafora’s second “African Dances and Modern Rhythms” recital at Carnegie Hall, a diasporic extravaganza with tap dance legend Bill Robinson, jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, and calypsonian the Duke of Iron. (She had also been in Dafora’s inaugural African Dance Festival in 1943.)  At the end of the year she joined Beryl McBurnie, the Caribbean Club Dancers, MacBeth the Great, and Gerald Clark and his Caribbean Serenaders for a gala at the Park Palace Ballroom, and in May 1946, for the third year in a row, she was part of the annual United Nations Folk Festival (as an “interpreter of Haitian songs and dances”) at the Golden Gate Ballroom, an event put on by the George Washington Carver Community School to observe “I Am an American Day.” Late that year, she embarked on a thirty-state concert tour with folksinger Josh White, a fellow cast member from Blue Holiday; the trip is described in some detail in Elijah Wald’s excellent Josh White: Society Blues.  Roger Kovach gives a firsthand account of a People’s Songs fundraising party that White and Premice attended while passing through Chicago—a Who’s Who gathering documented with a photo spread in Down Beat. In the wee hours, says Kovach, with the twenty or so remaining guests crowded into the host’s kitchen, White and Leadbelly began a vocal cutting contest:

Josephine was stretched across the kitchen table, signing an autograph for one of the guests. White looked down at her rear end and started singing “Backwater Blues” (“Hello, baby, I had to call you on the phone,” the refrain goes; “Jelly jelly, jelly’s all on my mind, Jelly roll killed my papa and made my mama blind”…)

White and Premice get a berth

Josh and the Haitian dancer Josephine Premice take ship for Europe, seen off by Josh’s wife, Carol, and his children Beverly and Josh Jr., c.1951. | Elijah Wald

Put this anecdote together with White’s reputation as a ladykiller and a contact sheet of unused photos from Wald’s biography showing White and Premice about to embark on a steamship on their way to a European tour, and you can’t help wondering whether Premice’s relationship with White was more than just professional.

Premice at the Vanguard

Portrait of Josephine Premice, Village Vanguard, N.Y., ca. July 1947 | From the William P. Gottlieb Collection of Jazz Photos, Library of Congress

Upon her return to New York, Premice began to emphasize singing over dancing, starting a run at the Village Vanguard in January 1947 that eventually extended to seven months.  (She later sang at Vanguard owner Max Gordon’s swankier East Side club, the Blue Angel, and at Greenwich Village’s forward-thinking Cafe Society.)  According to Billboard, her act included the Haitian air “Chouconne” and “Tongue-Tied Baby,” a version of Lord Kitchener’s recent carnival hit “Tie Tongue Mopsy.”

By June, Premice was part of the “enlarged cast” of an encore performance at Carnegie Hall of “The Calypso Carnival,” originally conceived as a one-off showcase for all of the calypsonians then resident in New York—Houdini, the Duke of Iron, the Great MacBeth, and Lord Invader.  (See “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3.”  The Afro-American reported that “more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore” had missed the initial sell-out show in May and characterized Premice as “the darling of Broadway stage and smart night clubs.”)  In December, she was a featured vocalist behind the Duke of Iron in the Broadway flop Caribbean Carnival, with choreography by  Primus and McBurnie.  The New York Post’s Richard Watts, who gave the revue one of its few comparatively kind write-ups, noted that the show had some good points—among them “Josephine Premice…a fine, tall, delightful girl, who sings amusingly, engagingly and with distinction.

Ppremice_dunesremice then returned to nightclubs, sometimes sharing a bill with Josh White (the two were in fact lifelong friends), and she made the jump to concert halls in May 1948 with her debut at the Apollo Theater, which played her up as “Broadway’s Haitian Born Star.”  She broke into recording with a single for Decca in August 1949; backed by the “Calypso Rhythm Boys,” she sang “Sweetie Joe” and “I Go Siesta,” both tunes penned by expat Trinidadian bandleader and impresario Sam Manning.

Like other folk and nightclub singers of the 40s and 50s—especially ones with Caribbean connections—Premice routinely included calypso in her repertoire, and by the early 1950s she was known both here and in Europe as a “calypso specialist.”  No surprise, then, in 1954, to find her in the cast for the out-of-town previews of Harold Arlen and Truman Capote’s West Indian fantasy House of Flowers.  (She left the show before it reached Broadway, though she had a starring role in the 1968 revival.)  For the similarly exoticist Jamaica, Arlen’s 1957 collaboration with Yip Harburg, Premice was given two of the  three numbers with the strongest calypso flavor: “Yankee Dollar,” whose title and theme recall the tag line of Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca Cola,” and “Leave de Atom Alone.”   (The third, the humorous “Push de Button,” went to headliner Lena Horne.  New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning saw Premice as the “hot flame to Horne’s cool fire.”)

Earlier in 1957, during the height of the Calypso Craze, Premice had released two albums: Caribe: Josephine Premice Sings Calypso for Verve and Calypso for GNP. Caribe‘s liner notes award her some rather exaggerated credentials, declaring her “the first American to sing calypso in this country,” then embellish her talents further with the aid of hackneyed racist tropes: “But even more than just being able to sing calypso in an authentic manner…she brings an electric excitement to every song along with a primitive, bestial kind of passion and a dramatic mood.” (When she appeared in Las Vegas at the Dunes in January 1957 with “her company of Afro-Cuban [sic] Calypsonians,” an ad in the local paper featured a bust of Premice with sensuous lips and downcast eyes framed by her own sinuously beckoning fingers, promising that the show would be “Wild! Savage! Electric! Pagan! Primitive! Passionate!”)

premice_caribepremice_calypsoWith the recent reissue of Caribe on CD (paired on a single disc with Calypso, which is also available separately as a digital download or a CD-on-demand), the entirety of Premice’s “calypso” output is back in print.  The Caribe/Calypso disc has also been pirated by the shadowy “Vintage Masters” label, with an anachronistic cover photo from the Smithsonian’s William P. Gottlieb collection.  The Jamaica original cast album, meanwhile, was re-released a decade ago on the Collectables specialty label, on a double CD with the Lena Horne/Harry Belafonte Porgy and Bess.

Posted in Beryl McBurnie, Calypso, Josephine Premice, Lena Horne, New York City, New York Nightclubs | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Calypso and the NYPL

Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 3, 2012

It started, more or less, in November of last year, with Scott Sherman’s article for The Nation, “Upheaval at the New York Public Library,” which shed light on the hitherto obscure details of the system’s Central Library Plan (CLP).  Among other things, the plan radically re-envisions the role of the main branch at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, the “crown jewel” of the system and the very model of a democratic research library.  (Indeed, it’s no overstatement to call this famously be-lioned Beaux-Arts building one of the world’s premiere research libraries.)  Then New Yorker contributing writer Caleb Crain picked up the baton, appearing with Sherman on radio station WNYC and making several impassioned but measured posts at his blog Steamboats are ruining everything, where he has also assembled a comprehensive collection of web and press clippings about l’affaire NYPL.  (Among the better installments: Scott McLemee’s provocative “Stop Cultural Vandalism” at Inside Higher Ed and Charles Petersen’s “Lions in Winter” in n+1.)  In April Sherman updated his story, after which the editors of The Nation weighed in separately.

So far, most of the controversy has focused on 42nd Street.  The CLP calls for closing the nearby Science, Industry and Business library and the rundown Mid-Manhattan branch (the largest of the system’s circulating libraries) and incorporating both into the main branch.  To make room, the latter’s historic underground stacks would be demolished and their contents moved offsite, effectively turning the main branch into a hybrid research/circulating library.  As The Nation puts it: this would both “disfigure an architectural treasure” and “compromise the scholarly mission of the NYPL in numerous ways.”

All this should be cause enough for concern and debate.  But The Nation editors highlight another, lesser-noted aspect of the plan: namely, the fact that the dubious, high-profile transformation of the flagship Fifth-Avenue facility may come at the expense of other elements of the system:  “The many [other] parts of the NYPL with innards in need of repair—the overburdened and underfunded eighty-seven branch libraries—may not receive a cent under the plan.  It appears that the CLP would also starve two other research libraries: the Performing Arts Library—once an oasis and now a ‘dump,’ according to a recent New York Times essay by Edmund Morris—and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which needs an infusion of funds to sustain its historic mission in Harlem.”

Dame Lorraine Celebration

Revelers at a “Dame Lorraine” Carnival organized by bandleader Gerald Clark at the Royal Windsor Ballroom (W. 66th St., New York) on February 15, 1942. From the collection of the Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library.

And that’s where calypso comes in.  If the CLP is implemented, the character and scholarly mission of the main branch may well be compromised in all sorts of ways (as Sherman and Crain’s reporting make clear, such compromises have in fact already begun), although access to its microfilmed trove of New York City newspapers—one of the principal documentary sources of the presence of calypso in the city over the past 80 years—is unlikely to be affected.  But the Schomburg, long the poor stepchild of the system’s research libraries, is custodian of a peerless collection devoted to the histories and cultures of the city’s Black populations, including the West Indians who made their marks on San Juan Hill and Harlem in the first half of the 20th century.  Performing Arts, meanwhile, houses hugely important research divisions in Music, Theater, Dance, and Recorded Sound, each of which contains hundreds of documents, artifacts, and ephemera related to calypso in New York, many still uncatalogued or (sadly) mislaid.

I do think it’s grossly unfair to call Performing Arts a “dump”: anyone who spent time there in the 90s, before the extensive renovations of the Lincoln Center campus that were carried out over the past decade, can’t help being impressed by the recent changes.  Back in the day, the librarians were noticeably beleaguered, the underpaid interns sullen and indifferent, the clippings files in disarray, the copy centers unusable.  I don’t know what conditions are like behind the scenes, but when I visited this summer, the upper floors were outwardly clean, bright, pleasant, spacious, well-organized and efficient.  The technology was at least turn-of-the-millennium.  The gofers seemed to enjoy their work (and to know what they were doing).  And if the librarians didn’t always know the collections as intimately as the old-timers once did, they were still every bit as devoted and professional.  But let’s be clear: there’s nothing lavish about Performing Arts, and it is, after all, a unique research facility in one of the world capitals of theater, music, and dance.  It’s baffling to imagine why its slice of the budget pie, let alone the Schomburg’s, should be diminished still further.

So no matter where you reside: calypso researchers and amateurs, use the links above to read up on the CLP, its criticisms, and its defenses.  If you’re so moved, sign the petition at  And tell your friends and colleagues.

Posted in Calypso, New York Public Library | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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