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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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The Bandit’s Last Carnival

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 25, 2016

Dave De Castro—The Bandit—passed away earlier this month.  A proud Trinidadian who began performing in Canada in the mid-1950s, Bandit was named that country’s first Calypso Monarch at the inaugural Caribana calypso competition in 1969.

He was a lovely, big-hearted man and a natural raconteur, funny, gracious, and generous with his time and his memories. He loved life and loved his family, and to the end he was fervently devoted the art of calypso. My sympathies to all his friends and loved ones.

Kaiso, Bandit!

Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Vale, Juneberry

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 28, 2015

A few weeks ago, I was reading two of the better installments of the NPR Music series Streaming at the Tipping Point—”Digital Underground: Who Will Make Sure the Internet’s Vast Digital Archive Doesn’t Disappear?” (a subject over which I too have wrung my hands) and “12 Essential Archives for Internet-Era Music Historians“—both of which take stock, among other things, of how utterly changed the work of music research is nowadays, thanks to the Internet, compared to even a decade ago.  On that subject, at least, you’ll find me in the Amen Corner.  (About some other aspects of streaming culture and the Wild West that is music on the ‘net, I’m more equivocal.)

A passing comment by Barry Mazor in the latter piece led me to the sad discovery that Tom Norm Morrison, the founder of Juneberry78s.com, died early last month.  Years before other collectors began peppering YouTube with vintage calypsos, Tom was posting them (along with scads of other “roots” music) on his site, which is where I first heard at least half a dozen rare sides from the 1930s and 40s that had not yet been reissued anywhere.

Thank you for your devotion to the music, Tom, and thanks to your family for keeping your labor of love up and running.

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Clear the Way for Caresser’s J’ouvert

Posted by Michael Eldridge on March 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

xmasday1908

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

Burgundy Jazz (and Calypso)

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 28, 2014

Just a quick shout-out on this last day of February to the CBC, which (in honor of Black History Month) put together a fantastic web documentary called “Burgundy Jazz: Life and Music in Little Burgundy.”  In 13 short segments, it surveys an important aspect of the social and cultural history of Montreal, one of the outstanding centers of jazz in the 20th century.  The website features brilliant design: high-definition video is front and center, but for each segment you can open (as an opaque pop-up) a photo gallery, a supplemental audio file or two, and a video extra.  (For inhabitants of the Apple-verse, there’s also a companion iBook and iPhone app.)  Luckily, the snazzy form is all about foregrounding the spectacular content: “Burgundy Jazz” features pithy history, smart interviews, and fantastic archival photos and film footage.

CBC Music’s blog links to the series Intro.  It’s worth watching all thirteen episodes from start to finish; they clock in at between 3 and 10 minutes each.  But if you’re in a hurry, start with Chapter 1, “Trains and Porters,” about the rise of Montreal’s St. Antoine neighborhood (a/k/a “Little Burgundy”), which in the early decades of the 20th century became home to the city’s tight-knit black community.  Many—most?—of that population’s early members were of West Indian origin, including Jamaican-born Rufus Rockhead, a former railroad porter and bootlegger who as proprietor of Montreal’s first black-owned nightclub grew to be one of Little Burgundy’s legendary figures.  Rockhead and his club are the subject of Chapter 9, “Rockhead’s Paradise.”

Many of the Canadian jazz musicians who gigged at Rockhead’s and other local spots during Little Burgundy’s heyday—pianist “Steep” Wade, for instance—were themselves West Indian by birth; others, like Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones, had West Indian parents.  But Rockhead’s most celebrated Caribbean entertainer wasn’t a jazz musician at all: for three solid years, from 1949 to 1952, the calypsonian Lord Caresser was a fixture in the downstairs bar.  (See my “Caresser in Canada.”)

A screenshot from Episode 9 of "Burgundy Jazz," featuring Louis Jaques's iconic 1951 photo from the Montreal Evening Standard of Lord Caresser performing at Rockheads Paradise

A screenshot from Episode 9 of “Burgundy Jazz,” featuring Louis Jaques’s iconic 1951 photo from the Montreal Evening Standard of Lord Caresser performing at Rockhead’s Paradise

I happen to know that CBC Radio has a number of other items locked away in its Toronto archives—including an episode of Lord Caresser’s radio show (which ran on the service’s national and international networks between 1946 and 1948)—that shed light on mid-century Black Canada.

  • “Another Man’s Country,” a 1959 documentary written and hosted by lawyer and activist Violet King, interviews participants in the West Indian “Domestic Scheme” about their experiences in Canada.
  • A “Wednesday Night” broadcast from 1956 is given over to discussion, readings, and performances by West Indian writers Jan Carew, Errol John, Sylvia Wynter, George Lamming, Edgar Mittelholzer, V.S. Naipaul and Sam Selvon.  (A 45-minute roundtable discussion among the seven is moderated by a young Stuart Hall.)
  • Various segments of “Assignment” from 1957-1960 note the rise (and fall) of the Calypso Craze, report on music and dance traditions from Trinidad (with help, in one instance, from Dot Evans and the March of Dimes quartet), speak with a Jamaican social-work graduate in Toronto, drop in on the Beryl McBurnie dance troupe’s visit to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and interview Eric Armstrong, owner of Toronto’s “Calypso Club.”

It’s great stuff, and it ought to be heard.  Let’s hope that “Burgundy Jazz” signals the start of an effort to dust off some of the many other resources related to Black Canadian history that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has in its vaults.  If not, well…independent researchers might have to exploit the fact that most of this material was produced under Crown copyright.  And Crown copyright, unlike the infinitely extended copyrights that are damaging the public sphere in the U.S. (and now Europe), quite sensibly expires after 50 years.  So all of the programs I mentioned above, for instance, are in the public domain.  Kudos on “Burgundy Jazz,” CBC.  Next?

Posted in Calypso, CBC, Jazz, Lord Caresser, Rockhead's Paradise, Uncategorized | 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:

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2013: The Year in Calypso Reissues

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 17, 2014

Periodically I find myself pining for the days when you could rely on Rounder to bring out some great new—which is to say, old—calypso anthology every other year or so.  But that race is run.  One fears that even a distance runner like Bear Family, who used to think nothing of producing lavish ten-disc box sets for obsessives and completists, must be on its last legs.  (One hopes such fears are unfounded; I hear rumors of great things in the works.  Still: there are only so many obsessives and completists in the world.)

In 2013, a lot of lesser outfits carried the calypso baton.  First, the gray-market stuff.  A while back, I surveyed some of the early entrants in the online race.  Now there’s yet another untraceable digital-download “label” (this one calling itself “Mondotone”) that specializes in tossing together loosely themed collections of vintage tracks, some well-worn, others relatively untrodden.  From the Caribbean corner of the mondo, they offer Calypso Kingdom: Lions and Tigers from Trinidad y Tobago, 1934-1957, which mixes up classic 1930s Deccas with small-label sides from the 40s and postwar issues from Melodisc and Parlophone; Treasure Isles: Music from Barbados, Bahamas & Virgin Islands, 1939-1958 (generous helpings of Blind Blake, George Symonette, and Lloyd Thomas, among others); and Mento Mania! The Origins of Ska and Reggae music in Jamaica, 1953-1955.  Each one is optimistically numbered “Vol. 1.”  We’ll see.  They feature enough good and/or or rare tunes to make all of them worth buying, but I can’t find anyone selling them with PDF booklets, so I assume there are none.  You want historical context and/or discographical details?  You’re on your own.

Or you turn to Frémeaux & Associés, who in 2010 inaugurated a series of double-disc sets devoted to various corners of the mid-century Anglophone Caribbean with Jamaica – Mento 1953-1958.  In 2011 they visited the Bahamas (Goombay 1951-1959) and Trinidad (Calypso 1939-1959), with a single-volume side trip focusing on the “internationalization” of calypso in the 1940s and 50s (Calypso 1944-1958).  In 2012 they sailed north to Bermuda (Gombey & Calypso 1953-1960).  This past year’s port of call: the Virgin Islands (Quelbe & Calypso 1956-1960).  You’ve got to admire the scope and ambition of the undertaking: compiler/producer/musicologist/musician Bruno Blum has clearly been working overtime to churn out these serial labors of love.  The packaging is nothing special—bulky quad jewel cases, hollowed out to make room for bilingual booklets—though the “retro” tourist graphics are very attractive.  And even if the notes are sometimes a bit dodgy, at least there are notes.  Above all, it’s great to see these tracks being cleaned up, documented, and circulated.

Fantastic Voyage Music adopts the “travel” trope more literally—well, nominally—although Jamaica is really its only stop in the Caribbean so far.  The latest:  Mento, Not Calypso!: The Original Sound of Jamaica, a two-disc set whose theme is in its title.  It contains a thoughtful selection of rare vintage tunes, many of which have not appeared on other, earlier collections.  And yes: even compiler Phil Etgart concedes (in his erudite notes) that back in the day, not all mento artists were particular about generic distinctions.  As a canny Lord Flea told an American fanzine during the 1957 Calypso Craze:

[I]n Jamaica, we call our music “mento” until very recently. Today, calypso is beginning to be used for all kinds of West Indian music. This is because it’s become so commercialized there. Some people like to think of West Indians as carefree natives who work and sing and play and laugh their lives away. But this isn’t so. Most of the people there are hard working folks, and many of them are smart business men. If the tourists want “calypso,” that’s what we sell them.

Fantastic Voyage is a British company, and the UK seems to be where most of the reissue action is at these days.  Case in point: Stuart Baker‘s Soul Jazz Records, which has put out its share of classic Jamaican music in the last 20 years, thanks to a licensing agreement with Clement Dodd’s Studio One.  Its latest release, however, is a collaboration with British Pathé that takes a more Pan-Caribbean view—keeping in mind the fact that the UK itself became the second most populous West Indian island some time ago.  Which is another way of saying that the organizing principle of Mirror to the Soul: Music, Culture and Identity in the Caribbean 1920-72 is loose.  One disc, “Caribbean Jump-Up, Mambo & Calypso Beat 1954-1977,” is broad-minded enough to encompass Irakere, Peanuts Taylor, Edmundo Ros, the Fabulous McClevertys, and the Duke of Iron.  The other, “Afro-Caribbean Music Up From the Roots 1994-2013,” emphasizes folkloric music from the francophone Caribbean—mostly.  (Cuba, Colombia, and Belize are represented, too.)  In some ways, though, the CDs are an afterthought: the centerpiece of the set is a DVD of the film from which the entire package takes its name, Mirror to the Soul: A Documentary film about British Pathé in the West Indies 1920-72.  It contains some truly fantastic footage, including not just the obligatory clip of Kitch at Tilbury Docks but also patrons and performers at London’s Caribbean Club in 1947, Boscoe Holder’s dance troupe in London in 1956 (and daily life in Brixton that same year), and the Talbot Brothers in Bermuda in 1959 and 1962.  The title is a misnomer, though: the film isn’t a documentary “about” British Pathé, but rather fifty-odd fragments of newsreels with no framing or commentary, save Baker’s smart essay in the accompanying booklet.  Baker emphasizes how Pathé, a private company, nevertheless reflected the paternalistic prerogatives of Empire in its representations of the Caribbean, even as it “chart[ed] Britain’s changing relationship towards its colonies” over the course of the 20th century.  “We are here because you were there,” goes the anti-anti-immigration slogan that began as a London graffito at the start of the modern black British civil rights movement.  Mirror to the Soul shows Pathé—and West Indians—both “here” and “there.”  (You can preview the audio on Soundcloud and the video on Vimeo.)

Two other compilations focus exclusively on Britain.  The first, Calypsos, Boogies, Rockers, Ballads, & Bluebeat: The Rise of Black Music in Britain, is of interest less for its smattering of 1950s calypsos, none of them new to CD, than for the diverse context of black genres—jazz, pop, R&B, rock, ska, bluebeat—in which they’re set.  It’s a worthy project, but a low-budget one, and consequently notes are scant and discographical info absent, even on the label’s website.  I’m surprised to have similar complaints about what is nevertheless the cream of last year’s crop, namely, the latest installment in Honest Jon’s indispensable series London Is The Place For Me.  Or rather, installments, plural, as Afro-Cubism, Calypso, Highlife, Mento, Jazz comprises volumes 5 & 6 (unless you’re buying it on vinyl). This set also puts calypso in context, though the backdrop here is the very worldly jazz and highlife that Denis Preston and Melodisc were also recording in the early 1950s, often in the same studios and with many of the same musicians.  Notes to the set are breezily informative but somewhat piecemeal, and apart from a few label scans there are no dates, no catalog numbers, no session details.  The gorgeous packaging, replete as usual with evocative photos from the Val Wilmer collection, almost makes up for those flaws.  Almost.

Inattention to detail is one thing you never have to worry about with Steve Shapiro or John Cowley—or with Bear Family, whose production values are unstintingly high.  No surprise, then, to find first-rate research, commentary, sound restoration, and design in Calypso Dawn: 1912, an album marking the centenary of the historic New York recordings of Lovey’s Band, the twelve-piece string band from Trinidad led by George “Lovey” Baillie.  The one-disc Digipak—released in late 2012, it didn’t hit the States till 2013—collects nearly all of the group’s sides for Columbia and three for Victor, including many “paseos,” two-step instrumental versions of popular calypso melodies of the day.  (Several will be familiar to afficionados of classic vocal calypsos recorded in the 20s and 30s.)  Between them, Shapiro and Cowley are responsible for a gaggle of those nostalgia-inducing compilations from Rounder (and Matchbox, and Smithsonian Folkways, and…) that I alluded to at the top of this post.  Moreover, Cowley’s Carnival, Canboulay and Calypso is one of the starting points for anyone doing research in Caribbean culture, and he was chief cat-herder of the “Classic Calypso Collective,” which produced Bear Family’s monumental West Indian Rhythm in 2006.  So this is a welcome addition to the canon.  And if the big box set really has run its course, then I hope this type of “one-off” charts a way forward.

Posted in Calypso, Great Britain, Lovey's Band, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Reblogging: Torontoism

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 16, 2014

CANEWA Dancers

Toronto Star, 5 November 1955

I’m long overdue in linking to a pair of impressively researched articles by Kevin Plummer that appeared way back before the holidays, over on the Torontoist blog.  Black History Month prompts me to acknowledge them at last.

These days Toronto draws smirks from its southern neighbors for the ongoing freakshow of its deeply troubled mayor.  What his yahoo antics belie, and what most Americans don’t know, is that Toronto has long prided itself—with at least some justification—on its tradition of multicultural cosmopolitanism.

Drawing on academic studies and contemporary newspapers, Plummer, um, plumbs the central role of calypso in the social life of Toronto’s small West Indian community during the 1950s and 60s.  By so thoroughly documenting calypso in nightclubs, house parties, social clubs, after-hours clubs, and fêtes, “Sounds of Home” (Part 1 | Part 2) complements the creative work of authors like Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, and Lawrence Hill in evoking a formative period in Black Canadian life. 

Here’s Plummer on CANEWA’s first “Calypso Carnival” (see photo, left):

In 1955, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CNWA), formed a few years earlier with the goal of increasing the black community’s visibility, staged a more formal celebration of Caribbean music and culture called the Calypso Carnival. It was an overt attempt to foster a sense of common community between the club’s mostly middle-class and Canadian-born membership and the newly arrived domestic workers. An immediate success in its first year—organizers had to turn people away at the door—the Calypso Carnival was an annual event until 1964.

Each year a local community hall was transformed into a lively tropical atmosphere with decorations, a bazaar selling goods imported from the West Indies, and a buffet that included curried goat, mango chutney, fricassee chicken, codfish, ackee, sweet potato coconut pie, and other Caribbean foods. There was limbo dancing and entertainers could be local Torontonians, like Jamaican-born calypso singer Lord Power, or international, like the Duke of Iron.

Growing into one of the largest events in Toronto’s black community, the Calypso Carnival was attended by upwards of 4,000 people some years, earned a fair amount of media attention—a rarity at the time for the black population—and raised money for a scholarship fund.

Full disclosure: I first learned of Plummer’s articles when he linked to my 2009 piece on Lord Caresser in Montreal.  So as long as I’m back-handedly blowing my own horn (ouch!), I’ll just mention my posts on postwar West Indian immigrants, student calypsonians, and “Bandit” DeCastro, which also fill in one or two crannies in Plummer’s work.  And because I’ve never found any other excuse to use it, I’ll take this opportunity to post the following ad (from the Globe and Mail‘s August 13, 1958 edition) for a football match between Toronto and what was very briefly my home town, Hamilton.  Even in 1958, I don’t think you’d have seen that kind of half-time show in Texas…

Go Ti-Cats!

Posted in Calypso, Canada, Toronto, Uncategorized | 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 »

“My Visit to Ottawa”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on December 4, 2009

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

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

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

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

Lord Caresser, "My Trip to Ottowa"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lord Caresser, "Calypso!" (booklet)

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

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

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

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

 
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