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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘cricket’

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 »

Hockey, Lovely Hockey

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 8, 2010

Victory Test MatchThere’s a venerable tradition of calypsos about cricket.  It stretches from the glory years of Calypso Cricket, when the Windies dominated the sport and David Rudder exorted the region to “Rally Round,” back through Relator’s 1972 “Gavaskar,” Lord Beginner’s “Victory Test Match” (a/k/a “Cricket Lovely Cricket”) and Lord Kitchener’s “Alec Bedser Calypso” (both from 1950), all the way to paeans to Learie Constantine by Caresser (1939) and Beginner (1928).

(King Radio, “We Want Ramadin on the Ball,” ca. 1952 – from Juneberry 78s)

Cricket plays a huge part in Caribbean identity.  One of the 20th century’s foremost intellectuals, the Trinidadian C.L.R. James, was famous among other things for his cricket journalism; his Beyond a Boundary, which Rudder’s calypso namechecks, is a landmark in West Indian thought.  All of the calypsos I’ve cited, and more besides, are generally fairly straightforward tributes to teams and individuals, though Rudder also takes James’s point that “[t]his is more than just cricket.”  I suppose that any attempt to explain the subject’s enduring popularity in calypso, however, should at least nod to the fact that bowling and batting present a wealth of metaphorical opportunities for boastful males to describe their technique in another, more universal, human endeavor.

In 1950, both Kitch and Beginner were based in England, and that’s where, at about the same time, bandleader Edmundo Ros started a vogue for calypsos about soccer with 1953’s “Exotic Football Calypso,” which was followed closely by Trini expat Edric Connor‘s “Manchester United Calypso.”  (Nowadays any English professional football team worth its cleats has its own calypso.)

Back in the 1930s and 40s there were any number of calypsos written about boxer Joe Louis, and there may even have been one or two homages to baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson.  But with the Habs still alive in the playoffs (as I write, the series is tied at 2), I’ll wager that Lord Caresser is the only bona fide Trinidadian calypsonian to have composed a tune about ice hockey.

Actually Caresser wrote about all sorts of winter sports during his time in Canada.  One of his most requested tunes was his “Ode to Barbara Ann Scott,” the Canadian Olympic figure skater.   (“You are a Skating Queen of the Ice / And, what is nice, you proved it twice / Adding laurels to your Country’s fame / Perpetuating its illustrious name.”)  His firsthand accounts of experiences with hibernal pastimes, however, are rather more equivocal.  Here’s the conclusion to his skiing misadventure in the Laurentians, for example (“Skiing”):

Constance found me trembling
From the shock I was just recovering
My  feet she tried to untangle
I was all wrapped up like a cross word puzzle
Struggling under cramping pain
I crawled and creeped until I reached the train
And swore never again in life to ski
Not if the snow on the mountains turned currency.

About hockey, he at least forced himself, after sitting through a professional match, to finish on an obligingly commendatory note:  “Cricket is really my favorite game,” he reminds us, just to reinforce his West Indian bona fides, “But from now on, hockey is my middle name / […] / For hockey today as it really stands / Should be supported by all the sporting fans.”   The bulk of “The Hockey League,” though, elaborates his discomfited surprise at what a brutal sport the fastest game on earth turns out to be—”naked war,” he calls it.  “If it wasn’t for the referees,” goes the chorus’s final couplet, “They would surely kill the goalies.”  Caresser’s sons, good French Canadians, grew up Black Iceplaying hockey, and as George and Darril Fosty’s Black Ice shows, the few dozen players of African descent who have made it into the NHL over the past 50 years or so are hardly the first black men to put on skates and pass around the puck.  (And given that the scene the Fostys document was centered around Halifax, it seems likely that at least some of those players, in later years, anyway, were West Indian.)  I didn’t ask his sons, and they didn’t say, whether, after watching the Habs’ choreographed brawl, Caresser was ever moved to grab a stick and get on the ice himself….

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Further Reading /Listening:
  • Calypso Cricket Lyrics (West Indies Players Association)
  • Gordon Rohlehr, “Calypso, Cricket, and West Indian Cricket: Era of Dominance” (Anthurium 6:1 [Spring 2008])
  • Martin Williamson, “Those two little pals of mine...ESPN CricInfo 24 June 2006
  • Douglas Midgett, “Cricket and Calypso: Cultural Representation and Social History in the West Indies” (Sport in Society 6:2 [2003]), rpt. in  J.A. Mangan and Andrew Ritchie, eds., Ethnicity, Sport, Identity: Struggles for Status (New York: Routledge, 2005)
  • Hilary McD. Beckles, The Development of West Indian Cricket: The Age of Nationalism (London: Pluto, 1998)
  • Claire Westall, “‘This thing goes beyond the boundary’: cricket, calypso, the Caribbean and their heroes.”  In Antony Bateman and John Bale, eds., Sporting Sounds: Relationships Between Sport and Music (New York: Routledge, 2009)
  • Lord Kitchener, “The Ashes
  • Brothers Christefor & Batson, “Dividing of the Cricket Spoils
  • Posted in Calypso, Cricket, Ice Hockey, Lord Caresser | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

     
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