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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Lord Invader’

Fidel Castro

Posted by Michael Eldridge on November 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

Ron y Coca-Cola

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 22, 2014

I can’t imagine I’d have much to say about Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola” that Kevin Burke hasn’t already covered in his superb Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.  Revisiting Burke’s website has got me thinking, though: not to put too fine a point on it, but what happens when the creator of a brilliant and indispensable resource like this…well…dies?  Or even just gets ill, or grows weary, or can no longer afford to renew the domain name?  Does this part of his life’s work just vaporize?  It happened, tragically, and prematurely, with the late Jim Zwick’s Anti-Imperialism in American Life and Sentenaryo/Centennial. Heck, I myself could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Working for the Yankee Dollar would disappear, too. After a while anyway, one presumes. Don’t get me wrong: even as I slink further into middle age, I don’t make a habit of being morbid, and I sincerely hope that Kevin has many, many healthy, prosperous, and active years ahead of him. Me, too, for that matter.  But what happens then?  I really want to know.  One hates to think of something so valuable being so ephemeral.

Anyway, as I was saying: about the pilfering of Invader’s calypso, I’ve nothing to add.  But it’s the first day of summer, which has me thinking about hot-weather refreshment. So what about the song’s namesake drink?

Even if you weren’t especially sophisticated about cultural politics or imperial history, I suppose you could read the Rum and Coke as an emblem of Trini-American “hybridity.”  Never mind the fact that it was Yankee imperialists bringing their world-dominating soft drink to the tropics and mixing it up with the local spirit, itself a product of slavery and colonialism. And never mind how the Andrews Sisters softened Invader’s stinging (albeit sexist) critique of American hegemony with their saccharine fizz.  By Invader’s own account, all those encounters between Trinidadian women and G.I. Joes—which yielded a bumper crop of blue-eyed, curly-haired offspring, to hear the calypsonians tell it—were facilitated by a peculiar sexual lubricant: a certain caramel-colored highball.

For a short while, Rum and Coca-Cola and “Rum and Coca-Cola” enjoyed considerable synergy: the hit song supposedly spiked sales of the mixed drink.  (One of the ostensible reasons for the song’s banning from American radio, in fact, was that it constituted free advertising for the Coca-Cola Company.)  Musically speaking, it’s now customary to trace the family tree of American pseudo-calypso from the Calypso Craze back to the Andrews Sisters’ bumpity bowdlerization.  But genealogy is a complicated business: in 1945, Invader also came north in pursuit of copyright justice and spent much of the next sixteen years in the States, floating freely between the worlds of jazz, blues, pop, and folk, borrowing promiscuously from all four.  In Britain, the West Indies, and America, his contemporaries were doing likewise.  It was a period of extraordinary stylistic development in calypso.

One of Invader’s last albums for Folkways Records, the aptly named Calypso Travels, includes the philosophical “As Long As It Born In My House, Is Mine.” (“It is said the child resemble Lieutenant Joe,” the lyrics begin; “Even [if] it is so, well, Honey, I don’t want to know.”)

Less than two decades after the Andrews Sisters and the American “invasion” of Trinidad, all trace of wounded male pride has vanished, and Invader is content to claim paternity for the bastard issue of wartime betrayal. Just months before his death in 1961, in fact, Invader would be pressed into service for a bizarre final episode of the celebrated TV newsmagazine Omnibus, where he appeared as a sort of wandering minstrel in the service of U.S. hegemony. Introducing—in calypso—a series of fusty academics prognosticating on the state of the Western hemisphere ten years hence, the former fiery tribune of civil rights and independence seemed to be shilling for the Pax Americana. More about this in a future post, perhaps.

But Lord Invader’s sorties and reversals make up just one chapter of a tangled tale of imperial love and theft. Before cola with rum was Rum and Coke, it was the “Cuba Libre.” And the Cuba Libre—as the Americans would have it, anyway—was supposedly a drink concocted by U.S. soldiers in Cuba, in tribute to the fighting spirit of the country they had “liberated” in the Spanish-American war.

Last year, Bacardi, which makes the top-selling rum in the U.S. (and which is controlled by the descendents-in-exile of the company’s Cuban founder), acknowledged the presumptuousness of this self-serving myth—sort of.  In a television ad timed to coincide with “Cuban Independence Day,” a holiday not observed in Cuba itself, where the 1902 anniversary marked by the date is viewed as the start of a half-century of neo-colonial subservience, a sultry independendista rebuffs a patronizing overture from one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, who impulsively offers her the glistening bottle of cola he has just plucked from the ice-bucket beside the desk in Teddy’s tent.  (He narrates the episode in an inarticulate, aw-shucks style reminiscent of George Bush.)

More screenshots at iSpot.tv. Watch the ad in its entirety on YouTube below. High-resolution versions available on Vimeo and brightcove (click the fullscreen icon).

In one swift motion, she rips the bottle from his hand, flips off its crown with the long knife with which she’s been whittling lazily between her parted legs, and dumps half its contents on the ground, spiking the remainder with a liberal splash from a flask she pulls from her garter, and whose cork she clenches savagely in her teeth.  “Cuba Libre!” she says, harshly, as she slaps the bottle back into his hand, then turns and sashays off into the jungle, casting back a withering glance at the dazzled, guileless hick.

Or is it a come-hither look?  Bacardi wants it both ways.  In spite of the tongue-in-cheek vignette where the rebel, not the soldier, is the agent of her own liberation (and her own mixology), the ending leaves open the possibility that the dusky maiden really might like to engage in a little mestizaje with the bandana’d blue-eyed hunk. (Unlike her Trinidadian counterpart, though, she won’t do it for money, or stockings, or chewing-gum, let alone Coca-Cola.)  And even if Bacardi manages to debunk a myth with one hand, it reinscribes it with the other. Touting the campaign, Tony Whitmoyer, Bacardi’s VP for marketing, was quoted in Advertising Age to the effect that “[m]illennial consumers are ‘really looking for brands that have authenticity and a heritage and a story…Bacardi has been incredibly successful as a business, but we really haven’t taken the time to tell consumers the real story behind the brand.’”  Meanwhile, a promotional website set up by Bacardi USA’s parent company, Bacardi Limited, simply rehearsed uncritically the old saw that gives credit for the drink to a U.S. Army Signal Corps captain in the “American Bar” in Havana.  (In an utterly incongruous gesture, in conjunction with the launch of the “historically-minded” ads, the company celebrated Cuban Independence Day in New York City by throwing a free concert at Roseland Ballroom featuring white hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.)

With Trinidadian self-rule and the departure of American troops in 1956, an upstart Sparrow—in many ways Invader’s stylistic successor—could gloat that with “No more Yankees to spoil the fete / Dorothy have to take what she get.”  “The Yankees gone,” he crowed; “Sparrow take over now.”  Henceforth, Trinidadians would call the shots and set the price. It must have seemed an empowering notion. But as Earl Lovelace’s doubtful title has it: Is Just a Movie. True, the U.S. finally closed its naval base at Chaguaramas in 1967, five years after full Trinidadian independence. But Coke is still bottled in T&T. By contrast, in a final irony, after the 1959 revolution which freed Cuba at last from American domination, both Bacardi and Coca-Cola left that country, never to return. So you might say it’s Cuba libre, not Trinidad, which has been “free” of the Yanqui for the last half-century.  Free of Rum-and-Coca-Colonization, at least.

cuba-libre-tee


Posted in Andrews Sisters, Lord Invader, Rum and Coca-Cola | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Re-Post (Sort of): Hip Hooray for the Bulldog’s Daughter

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 6, 2014

Mary Churchill keeping pace with father Winston at the Potsdam Conference, 1945. National Archives/Truman Library, via Wikipedia

I’ve said it before: sometimes it seems as if this is turning into the faintly-connected-to-calypso obit blog. But deaths of famous people tend to come in threes, so after Herb Jeffries and Maya Angelou, I was holding my breath. And then, this morning, in the Times: “Mary Soames, Daughter of Churchill and Chronicler of History, Dies at 91.”  (For a native perspective, see the London Guardian.)

Granted, Mary Churchill was no Princess Margaret. But on a tour of Auxiliary Territorial Service training camps, she did at least profess to enjoy calypso once. Let me recycle part of an earlier post, itself excerpted from my essay “Calypso’s Cosmopolitan Strategy” (the context: a discussion of Canadians’ determination to see West Indians as happy, loyal subjects of the Empire):

"Subaltern" Mary Churchill

Globe and Mail, 21 August 1943

But it was a front-page, above-the-fold photo in the Globe and Mail in the summer of 1943 that truly spotlighted West Indians’ devotion to their martial Mother Country. A teaser for a two-column story on the paper’s Women’s page, the picture illustrated a visit to Canada by servicewoman Mary Churchill (daughter of Winston), and featured a smiling, down-to-earth Churchill “[singing] calypso songs” amidst a group of dark-skinned Barbadian volunteers at the Auxiliary Territorial Services basic training camp in Kitchener, Ontario. The photo-op with the West Indians, who accounted for precisely forty-seven of the camp’s 1000 trainees, was framed as the centerpiece of the story, which climaxed with the “girls” (including “Subaltern” [!] Churchill) in an impromptu performance of one of their “native” songs, clear evidence of their childlike trust in the Great White Mother:

There was a moment of shyness on the part of [the] girls from the British West Indies…when Miss Churchill appeared on the scene. But when she sat on the grass, gathering them around her and chattering as naturally as if she knew each one, they were soon laughing hard and telling her all about themselves….

When Ptc. M. K. Evelyn from the Barbados sang a native calypso, Miss Churchill joined in the chorus heartily. “It’s simply marvelous!” she said, clapping her hands. “I wish we could have had a recording of it!”[1]

The Globe and Mail‘s focus wasn’t unique. A Canadian Press story (“Mary Churchill Helps CWACS With Singsong”) made it out as if the “[t]awny-haired, blue-eyed” Churchill might even have inspired the melodic outbreak through sheer force of personality: “Within 15 minutes of her arrival,” the story led off, the twenty-year-old Churchill had the “girls…from the West Indies at their ease and a calypso sing-song rolling.” The wire service even mentioned by name the calypsos on which she joined in: Lord Invader’s “Small Island” (“So, Small Island: go back where you really come from!”) and something called “One Sunday Morning.” The latter must have been Atilla the Hun’s grandiloquent “Graf Zeppelin,” which begins: “One Sunday morning, I chanced to hear / A rumbling and a tumbling in the atmosphere”—as if their illustrious visitor from that small island off the coast of Europe were being compared to a stately blimp descending from out of the blue. Maybe Ptc. Evelyn’s choices were innocent. (The CP specified that Elaine de Gannes of Trinidad also took part in the selection.) But if not, then those West Indian “girls” really did have something to laugh hard about.


[1] Tupper, Jan. “Keeping Pace With Father Easy, Says Mary Churchill.” Globe and Mail 21 August 1943: 10.

Posted in Calypso, Canada, Mary Churchill | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Pete Seeger and Calypso for the 99 Percent

Posted by Michael Eldridge on January 28, 2014

There will be gallons—oceans—of ink spilled on Pete Seeger today, justifiably so, and I’ve got nothing of real substance to add.  But it’s worth remembering, incidentally, how much Seeger and “People’s Songs” influenced the way Americans thought of calypso.  At a time when campy covers of “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Stone Cold Dead in the Market” topped the charts, Seeger promoted calypso not as pop music but people’s music.  As he saw it, calypsonians weren’t purveyers of commercial ditties; they were tribunes of the folk who spoke truth to power and gave voice to the grievances of the downtrodden.  (Calypsonians themselves weren’t so sure it had to be an either-or proposition, but that’s a story for another day.)

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, and Lord Invader. Afro-American (National Edition), May 4, 1946.

People’s Songs and its successor People’s Artists featured calypso not just at the famous 1946 “Calypso at/after Midnight” concert at New York’s Town Hall, but also at their long-running “Hootenannies,” where Sir Lancelot, the Duke of Iron, Lord Invader, and Lord Burgess (Irving Burgie) are all known to have performed throughout the 1940s and 50s.

If there was one calypso that truly passed into the consciousness of the Folk Song movement, it was Lord Pretender’s 1943 anti-racist anthem “God Made Us All,” which Invader brought with him when he came to New York in 1945 to sue for copyright infringement over “Rum and Coca-Cola.”  As Seeger tells it, Invader once showed up unannounced at a “hoot” and wandered backstage to ask how he could help. Drafted to sing at the next event, he performed Pretender’s song, which was so well received that its lyrics were printed in the next issue of the People’s Songs newsletter.1 Lead Belly soon recorded the tune with additional lyrics of his own, although the track wasn’t issued until decades later, and Seeger himself accompanied Invader (on banjo) in a performance recorded at that May 1946 Hootenanny.  (On a related note: Andrew Martin recounts Seeger’s advocacy for pan in the U.S., beginning in the 1950s, in “Words of Steel: Pete Seeger and the U.S. Navy Steel Band.)2

Of the thousands of folk songs that Seeger sang and composed throughout his long life, one of his favorites was friend and fellow traveller Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”  For most Americans, calypsonians and the music they made were exotic novelties.  For Pete Seeger, “this land” belonged to them, too.


[1] See People’s Songs 1.6 (July 1946): 6.

[2] The Lead Belly cover appears on the CD Lead Belly’s Last Sessions (Smithsonian-Folkways 40068/71, 1994).  (On the Smithsonian Folkways website, by the way, Jeff Place writes one of the best tributes to Seeger that I’ve yet read.)  Much of the preceding paragraph is adapted from the forthcoming Bear Family Calypso Craze box set, compiled and annotated by Ray Funk and Michael Eldridge. On the “Limers” discussion list after this post was first published, Funk mentioned a video clip in his possession of Seeger performing Tiger’s “Money Is King.”  Not surprising, perhaps, given Seeger’s lifelong leftism (make that “small ‘c’ communism“); even near the end of his life, he marched in solidarity with 2011’s “Occupy” movement.

Posted in Calypso at Midnight, Lord Invader, People's Songs, Pete Seeger | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 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 »

 
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