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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘1940s’

Hello Americans: Orson Welles and Calypso, Pan-American Style

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 5, 2015

May 6th marks the Orson Welles centenary, and NPR had a story this past Sunday on the famous film director’s work for radio. Everyone knows about Welles’s notorious radio drama of The War of the Worlds; fewer remember that it was an episode of The Mercury Theatre on the Air (see also the Digital Deli and Kim Scarborough’s tribute site), a weekly series for which Welles and his regular company of stage talents—John Houseman, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, et al.—adapted scores of literary works.

More obscure still: Hello Americans, Welles’s short-lived CBS radio series that plumped for FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy, combating U.S. provincialism and fostering cross-cultural understanding. That was the theory, anyway. Underwritten by Nelson Rockefeller’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, the series ran for a mere twelve weeks in late 1942 and early 1943 before it was cancelled. (Typically, Welles was…let’s say “stretched too thin” to supervise it properly.)

Orson Welles in Rio, 1942

These days, your average grad student in the humanities could pick all sorts of ideological holes in Hello Americans. But that’s no reason to doubt Welles’s good faith. A vocal anti-racist and a supporter of African-American writers, actors and artists, the wunderkind was hailed in the Black press as a “friend of the Negro.”  And even if the cynics contend that “Good Neighbor” was finally just a warm and fuzzy cover for an earlier Roosevelt’s Big Stick (or worse, the foundation for an imminent American imperium), nevertheless the New Deal internationalism that Welles peddled—sincerely—was essentially a Popular Front knockoff. Progressives of all stripes believed that the war against fascism must lead to the end of colonialism abroad and Jim Crow at home and to a radical realignment in the relations of power between the nations of North and South. “Good Neighbor”—a “shift in representation towards a more lateral and dialogic notion of adjacency, positioning U.S. and Latin American culture on the same plane,” as Tom McEnaney puts it in a brilliant reading of Hello Americanswas a hemispheric head start on “One World.”

By 1942 you didn’t need to be Melville Herskovitz or Katherine Dunham to see African retentions forming the backbone of Pan-American culture, especially in the realms of music and dance. Plenty of people—artists, especially—were fascinated by what linked rumba and samba, calypso and “voodoo,” with spirituals, jazz, and blues. A year earlier, even Ed Sullivan, then an influential entertainment columnist for the New York Daily News, had taken his syndicated “Little Old New York” on a Pan-American junket, temporarily renaming it “Little Old New York In South America,” to find out for himself.

Calypsonians had been celebrating their own spanning of the hemisphere for some time already (see Lord Caresser’s “My Luxurious Life” and “Exploiting,” for example, or Lion and Atilla’s “Guests of Rudy Vallee“), and both Sullivan’s and Welles’s tours of the Americas included literal or figurative stops in Trinidad. Welles’s radio series visited twice, in fact, and on both occasions he was “met” by Lancelot Pinard, known professionally as Sir Lancelot.

Pinard’s résumé as a calypsonian wasn’t long, however. He came from a privileged background in Trinidad and was sent to New York to pursue medicine. But Pinard quit his studies after bandleader Gerald Clark heard him sing at a private party (he’d had classical vocal training) and invited Pinard to join his calypso revue at the Village Vanguard. At the same time, Pinard recorded two sides with Clark for Varsity, one of which, “G-Man Hoover,” became a novelty hit. When the Vanguard gig ended (wildly popular, it was extended for ten months), Pinard went on a nationwide tour and wound up in Hollywood. That location, along with his refined elocution, gave him some singular advantages in the U.S. market. When he appeared on Hello Americans, he was awaiting the release of his (and calypso’s) screen debut, the Mary Martin-Dick Powell comedy Happy Go Lucky.

Afro-American, 17 October 1942

Afro-American, 17 October 1942

Pinard was also a genteel radical. A member of the leftwing music collective People’s Songs, he recorded for Eric Bernay’s Keynote label (home of the Almanac Singers), famously set Henry Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man” speech to music, and campaigned for Wallace in 1948. In a 1941 profile by Ollie Stewart for the Afro-American, Pinard agreed that “there is a definite kinship between…the calypso of Trinidad, the tango of the Argentine, the rhumba of Cuba, the samba and conga of Brazil and jazz of the United States”—all of them rooted in the “rhythms of Africa…all contributed to their respective countries by ex-slave groups.”  “However,” Pinard continued,

calypsos have one distinction that sets them apart from other folk music, particularly that contributed by the American colored man. The white man has not (yet) muscled in and commercialized calypsos, to the exclusion of its originators, as he has done with American dance music and folk tunes. Trinidadians have refused to teach the calypso technique to white musicians.

That would change, soon enough. In the meantime, Sir Lancelot might demonstrate calypso for the ofay prince of Hollywood (“Ofays Slow to Grasp,” read the final subhead of Stewart’s piece), but no matter how sympathetic his politics, he wouldn’t show the Pan-American mediator, ventriloquist, and potential appropriator how to do it.

His first offering (from “The Alphabet: C to S,” 13 December 1942) starts out as an anodyne tourist-board ad, then transforms into a manifesto of Pan-American solidarity against fascist “men of tyranny” (move the slider to 2:18):


Next time, with Mexican singer Tito Guízar filling in for an indisposed Welles (“Ritmos de las Americas,” 3 January 1943), Lancelot called the “Sons of America” to arms to avenge the attack on Pearl Harbor and fight for “the right to live in dignity, justice, and liberty” (move the slider to 5:40):


Lancelot would make his own tour of South America in 1946, by the way, and he would come home with a few interesting things to say. (He also offered a musical take on Pan-Americanism.)

____________________________________

Further reading:

  • Hello Americans (Wikipedia)
  • Hello Americans: all twelve episodes at The Internet Archive, source of the above streams
  • Life Goes to Rio Party: Orson Welles frolics at Famous Mardi Gras” (Life 18 May 1942)
  • Joao Perdigao, “Citizen Samba
  • Tom McEnaney, “Hello, Americans: Orson Welles, Latin America, and the Sounds of the ‘Good Neighbor'” (Sound Studies August 2013)
  • And, of course, the second volume of Simon Callow’s biography of Welles, also entitled Hello Americans
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Posted in 1940s, Calypso, Good Neighbor Policy, Orson Welles, Pan-Americanism, Sir Lancelot | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Bop Guy Goes Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 11, 2010

In last weekend’s Saturday link dump, NPR’s A Blog Supreme pointed to a Brilliant Corners post by Matt Lavelle, who managed jazz sales at the old Tower Records on 4th and Broadway in New York during its final years.  Like a few thousand other people, I’ve got fond memories of that place.  The staff in the jazz department, which for ages took up half of the third floor, were wry, knowledgeable, and hip, and a number of them were working, if underemployed, musicians.  My favorite fixture, though, was an older gent named Garl Jefferson, who came out of retirement to take the job and stayed for well over ten years.

I only got to know him after about a decade’s worth of semi-annual pilgrimages.  Tower’s international section was for a while adjacent to jazz, and when I came to the counter in the summer of 2000 with a question about some obscure calypso disc that I hadn’t managed to find, the clerk referred me to Garl.  I was glad he did.

Happy Go Lucky Presskit Detail

Detail from a page of the “Happy Go Lucky” presskit (1942, rel. 1943)

Jefferson was born in Harlem in 1932.  Charlie (Congressman Charles) Rangel was in his brother’s class.  He met Sidney Poitier at the Red Rooster in the 1950s.  His high school basketball coach once wangled him an after-school job as Langston Hughes’s gofer.  And Jefferson was eager to tell me about how calypso, along with bebop and mambo, was a staple in Harlem during and after World War II.  (And even later: when he came back from the Korean War in 1954, he said, “there were still [calypso] bands and dances going on”).  He knew—and so did everyone else he knew—Houdini and the Great MacBeth and the Duke of Iron and Lord Invader and the Gerald Clark band.  He recalled seeing Sir Lancelot in “I Walked With a Zombie” and “Happy Go Lucky,” and he sang from memory a verse and chorus of Lion’s “Ugly Woman,” which Lancelot performed in the latter film.  Even Charlie Parker kept some West Indian music in his bag, he noted, citing not only Bird’s own “Barbados”—“one of the things that [eventually] got my wife closer to me, because she’s second-generation Bajan”—but also a cover of “Sly Mongoose.” (It’s included in the 1952 Live at the Rockland Palace concert; Jefferson remembered it being in Parker’s late 40s repertoire.)

Calypso Ball at the Golden Gate Ballroom (Amsterdam News, 1 February 1947)

As a teenager, Jefferson said, he heard all kinds of music in Harlem, and he leaned strongly towards bop.  But he often went to calypso dances with his best friends, many of whose parents were West Indian, at places like the Park Palace, the Renaissance Casino, and the Audubon Ballroom, as well as at smaller halls rented for the night by a West Indian social club or benevolent association.  Most any weekend, he said, you could count on hearing calypso somewhere or other.  Even at legendary jazz spots like Murrain’s and Small’s Paradise, he remembered attending “calypso dances…as well as jazz sessions.”  (He may have been too young to get into Boxil Jackson’s Caribbean Club on 7th Avenue.)  Usually there would be just one band—vocals, sax, trumpet, guitar, bass, conga, maracas—on the evening’s bill, he said, sometimes two or more at larger halls like the Park Palace.

At the time, Jefferson wasn’t aware whether any of these acts had a reputation outside of Harlem, but it wouldn’t have mattered: for him and his friends, the calypsonians’ cool factor didn’t depend upon their success downtown or out of town.  He could go to school the following Monday and say, “Man, we were at a dance [on Saturday] and MacBeth was burnin!” and he wouldn’t have to explain or defend his judgment.

West Indian Day Parade

West Indian Day Parade, 6 September 1948 (W. Smith, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs & Prints Division)

He was emphatic that a broad social spectrum—middle-class and working-class, West Indian and African-American—was represented at these events.  “For a kid my age, at the time, in the late 40s, [a calypso dance] was a social function that you counted on being at.”  The venue might only have accommodated a hundred people or even fewer, “but it was a happening!” The same went for the West Indian Day Parade, originally held on Lenox Avenue in Harlem: “For me, that was a big deal.  It meant a lot to me and the rest of the kids in my generation.”

Even if you weren’t an habitué of the dances, though, calypso was in the air: “On the jukebox, you would hear eighty per cent jazz, and all of a sudden here comes Louis Jordan.”  (Here he broke out in song again.)  “‘Run Joe!’ And ‘Stone Cold Dead.’  And that’s what I’m alluding to: you’re gonna hear this whether you want to or not.  So that’s why I’m saying, it wasn’t a matter of me going seeking it out, it was there for me to pick up on.”

Socially speaking, Jefferson said, calypso in Harlem was “primarily dance music”: at the clubs, “the accent was on dancing, and everybody’d be bumping hips.”  But his friends had plenty of records at home, too.  And when you heard calypso on disc or on the radio, “you listened to hear the words” as well as the music.  “Doris, darling I am feeling blue,” he sang, quoting a variant of Growler’s “I Don’t Want No Calaloo”: “I believe what the neighbors tell me is true / Just gimme de royal codfish / And not de green ting inside de dish / My darling I can’t call you / Cau’ I don’t want no more callaloo.”

What Jefferson particularly recollected, though, were tunes with social and political relevance, including one about Axis leaders and the cult of personality, whose title he remembered as “You Got to Have Power” (“Hitler had power, power; Mussolini had power, power; Hirohito had power, power”), as well as another uptempo tune that mentioned Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Khan: “This is really true / I dream one day I was really a Hindu (2x) / All the Indians from Hyderabad / Come to see me because I was feeling so sad.”  “Now at my age,” said Jefferson, “if I can still remember some of the words to these things, you’ll understand what an impression it made.  It wasn’t fleeting.”

Another tune he recalled was “Fire Down Dey”: “The first place we heard that was in the old Park Palace,” he said; “just about all [the] bands would play it.”  And that’s why, he said, when Sonny Rollins recorded the same melody a decade later, “it wasn’t nothing new to me—but he called it ‘St. Thomas.’”

Intriguingly, when I first chatted with Jefferson at the register in Tower, he thought he remembered a friend of his father’s, a sideman with Rollins, who was reputed to be the Duke of Iron’s uncle.  When we sat down to talk at length a few days later, though, on a lunch break at the Astor Place Starbuck’s, he told a different story, about a tenor player with MacBeth the Great, a big man—physically not unlike Rollins—who had a particular talent for energizing the dancers.

“Knowledge, experiences, aren’t here to be kept to yourself,” Jefferson told me as we were packing up and saying our goodbyes.  “You gotta share it, otherwise you don’t really have any knowledge.”  You’ve got it, Garl.  I hope you’re still kicking.  Thanks for sharing.

__________________

Addendum, January 2014: I’ve since confirmed that the tune Jefferson recalled above was indeed Muriel Gaines singing “You Got to Have Power” (National 8001B, 1945), backed by Sam Manning’s Serenaders.

Posted in Calypso, Garl Jefferson, Harlem, Jazz, New York Nightclubs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Mess-A-Calypso

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 9, 2010

Mary Lou Williams

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Lou Williams Trio

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

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

Disc Calypso albums

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

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

Posted in David Stone Martin, Disc Records, Mary Lou Williams, Moe Asch | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

 
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