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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘New York City’

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.


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 »

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 »

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 »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 3

Posted by Michael Eldridge on June 3, 2012

A couple of months ago, the internet did one of those things it’s meant to do (but rarely does): it served up a huge cultural treasure, indexed, annotated, and easy to use.

The Association for Cultural Equity, founded in 1983 by musicologist Alan Lomax and housed at Hunter College in Manhattan, exists “to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.”  Its enlightened mission: to “preserve, publish, repatriate and freely disseminate our collections.”  (You can read the full statement here.)  Those collections include the Alan Lomax Archive—a “priceless” (and staggering) trove “of recorded music, dance, and the spoken word” begun in 1946.  So far, the online archive includes over “17,000 free full-streaming audio field-recordings, totaling over eight hundred hours […]; scans of 5,000 photographic prints and negatives; sixteen hours of vintage radio transcriptions; and ninety hours of interviews, discussions, and lectures”—with more to come.

Ticket to Calypso at Carnegie

Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Lord Invader

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

For calypso fans, the earliest item in the archive is also one of the best: the complete tapes of the December, 1946 People’s Songs “Midnight Special” concert at New York’s Town Hall, previously released on Rounder Records as Calypso at Midnight and Calypso After Midnight.  (Chris Smith penned a smart review of those CDs for Musical Traditions magazine, while Kevin Burke provides historical context at The Rum and Coca-Cola Reader.)  The concert’s front page leads to a track-by-track rundown; clicking on each track’s title yields an audio player and full recording details, with credits and scholarly notes by Don Hill and John Cowley.

Pearl Primus in "Calypso"

Philadelphia Bulletin, 19 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk)

The “Calypso at Midnight” show paved the way for a series of high-profile calypso concerts in New York over the next twelve months: at Carnegie Hall (as part of the Carnegie “Pop” Concerts series in May and June 1947), Town Hall and Carnegie Hall again (both in October 1947), and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (late 1947 and early 1948), and it probably emboldened Sam Manning to rush into production an ill-fated Broadway revue.  (That show, which previewed in Philly and Boston as “Calypso” and opened as “Caribbean Carnival” on December 5, 1947 at the International Theatre on Columbus Circle, closed after just eleven performances.  Although it was billed as the “First Calypso Musical Ever Presented,” that distinction arguably belonged to Katherine Dunham‘s similarly short-lived “Carib Song” from 1945.  [See Darrel Karl’s Keeping Score for recording histories of “Carib Song” and “Caribbean Carnival.”])

Calypso @ BAM

New York Times, 30 November 1947

According to the Afro-American, the May 8th, 1947 Pop Concert at Carnegie “saw more than 5,000 devotees of Caribbean folk lore unable to gain admission,” which meant that “by popular demand,” a second show (“with an enlarged cast”) had to be scheduled for June 9.[1]  Of “Calypso at Midnight,” the socialist Daily Worker had noted somewhat patronizingly that “[i]t has never been more noticeable that the first laughter and applause [for the calypsonians’ bons mots] comes from the uppermost reaches of the balcony.”[2]  (Meanwhile, calypso continued to draw crowds at clubs in Harlem and at other African-American gathering spots uptown like the Golden Gate Ballroom, the Park Palace, and the Renaissance Casino.  [See “Bop Guy Goes Calypso.”])

Lomax Geo Archive“Calypso at Midnight” isn’t the only item in the ACE archive of interest to calypso enthusiasts: Lomax traveled extensively throughout the Caribbean in 1962, and everything he recorded there has been placed online, indexed by session, date, and place.  That same material is also searchable via the Lomax Geo Archive, an ingenious tool that, with the aid of customized Google Maps, lets you retrace Lomax’s itinerary point by point and listen to the field recordings from each stop.  (The above link is centered on Port-of-Spain, but you can resize and/or recenter the map on any locale.)  There’s also a special feature on Lomax’s work in Grenada and Carriacou, and a little searching and sifting turns up all of Growling Tiger’s performances at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival.

So why aren’t other archives—at universities, research libraries, the BBC, the CBC—doing (more of) this?  They’re all sitting on collections that, if they were only made freely accessible, could enrich the world’s cultural patrimony.  You can supply the answers: not enough money, not enough staff, not enough resources.  (I get it: I work at a state-funded institution savaged by repeated budget cuts, too.)  Copyright mazes.  Possessiveness.  Inertia.  Etc., etc.  But ultimately it’s a matter of institutional will.  Copyright?  There are workarounds, there are people of good will, there’s public shaming.  Money, staff, resources?  Crowd-source it—either the financing and/or the labor. (There are plenty more scholar-drones like me out there who’d be glad to do some “hive” work in The Cloud.)

And you private collectors: ars longa, vita brevis.  You can’t take it with you.  It couldn’t be easier to start a blog.  Channel your OCD into something beneficial.  Get to work sorting, scanning, and digitizing, even if it’s only for 15 minutes a week.  I’ll begin:

  • Carnegie Hall program booklet, “Cla-Mac of Trinidad Inc Presents | Its First in a Series of Authentic Calypso Concerts | On Sunday Evening, Oct. 12th, 1947; 8:30 p.m. Sharp | At Carnegie Hall, 57th St. & 7th Ave.”
  • Flyer, “People’s Songs Inc Presents | The Midnight Special at Town Hall | A Series of American-Folk Music Concerts under the Supervision of Alan Lomax | Calypso at Midnight | Gerald Clark and Band | Lord Invader | Duke of Iron | Macbeth the Great | Town Hall, Saturday Dec. 21, 11:30 p.m. [illustration by David S Martin]”
  • And:
Carnegie Pops Calypso Town Hall Calypso Carnival Manning's Caribbean Carnival
L-R: New York Amsterdam News, 3 May 1947 | New York Amsterdam News, 15 October 1947 (courtesy Ray Funk) | New York Times, 30 November 1947

[1] “Calypso Carnival in Demand Encore.”  Afro-American, nat’l ed. 7 June 1947: 8.
[2] Murray Chase, “Music in Review.”  Daily Worker 24 December 1946: 11.

Posted in Alan Lomax, Association for Cultural Equity, Calypso at Midnight | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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