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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Randy Weston’

Post-Caribana Miscellany

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2016

As I start this, the Caribbean Carnival grand parade will be wining down Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard for a couple more hours yet, and the Caribana revels continue through tomorrow (Sunday, July 31), so the “post-” in this post’s title is decidedly premature. But I’ve been away for many weeks, seeing exotic sights and enjoying the company of old friends, and now I’ve returned home to stare down the end of summer and face the impending doom of a new academic year. So I’m having a hard time living in the moment.

But it’s a beautiful day in northern coastal California, and I’m furiously procrastinating the things I really ought to be doing. This seems as good a moment as any, then, to catch up on a bunch of random items I’ve been collecting. And actually, the first item is apropos: while I was on the road, Dave De Castro, The Bandit, Caribana’s first kaiso king, finally got a proper obituary—and a good one, at that—from George Haim in The Star.

Another culture-bearer passed while I was away—a true literary giant: Bajan-born Canadian writer Austin Clarke, whose early work imagined the lives of West Indian domestics (and other working-class immigrants) in 1950s Toronto with poignant humor, and whose 2002 novel The Polished Hoe justly won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. (His memoir Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack, a devastatingly hilarious indictment of colonial education, surely carries one of the all-time best titles in literature.) Clarke’s death was noted by The StarThe New York Times, and Pride, among others, while ArtsEtc (Barbados) reprinted a 1998 interview, “Sail On, Prince of Tides.”

Thankfully, many of the elders are still with us, and it’s good to see them going strong—and getting recognition. For instance:

With support from Torontonian Drew Gonsalves (and his band Kobo Town), five-time T&T calypso monarch Calypso Rose has just released a new album, Far From Home, that’s garnering plenty of attention. (See, e.g., this feature story in the London Guardian.)  Accompanied by Kobo Town, the Queen will close this year’s WOMEX World Music Expo in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where she will also receive the WOMEX Award. Here’s Rose’s take on Lord Executor’s “They Say I Reign Too Long”:

And 90-year-old pianist Randy Weston, whose West Indian heritage was reflected in early recordings like “Fire Down There” (immortalized a year later as “St. Thomas” by his label-mate Sonny Rollins) and “Little Niles,” was just inducted into DownBeat magazine’s hall of fame. He’s the subject of the August issue’s cover story, and he’s getting ready to go out on tour. NPR’s Jazz Night In America caught him at the 2016 Panama Jazz Festival.


Other miscellany:

  • Old calypso, exhumed and restored: Lovey’s Band, “Oh, Mr. Brown” at Excavated Shellac
  • Old calypso, sampled and re-animated: Australian band The Avalanches build their new single, “Frankie Sinatra,” on Houdini’s “Bobby Sox Idol” (Thanks very much to an alert reader for this tip! But what is it with Houdini Down Under?—cf. C. W. Stoneking’s “Brave Son of America“)
  • Old calypso, mashed up: “Pimped-up Calypso: Case Studies” (I’ve been meaning for ages to give a shout-out to the excellent new blog by “Lord Investor,” who is on a mission to explain “to the world what’s so good about calypso.” In a distantly related vein, see Carrie Battan’s New Yorker piece about Mixpak Records, “Rhythm Revival“)


Posted in "Bandit" DeCastro, Calypso, Calypso Rose, Canada, Kobo Town, Randy Weston, Toronto | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Helan Går Dey

Posted by Michael Eldridge on February 12, 2011

I’m hoping somebody can help me out here.  Sonny Rollins is on record (so to speak) as having first heard the melody of his signature tune “St. Thomas” on “his mother’s knee.”

A Wikipedian characterizes the tune as “a traditional nursery song from the Virgin Islands,” although Rollins himself, while acknowledging that the song went by various names in the islands, infers (in Erik Nisenson’s Open Sky) that it originated as “a Scandinavian folk song.”  He seems to have reached that conclusion in part because of the Virgin Islands’ Danish colonial history–and in part because a tune he “heard sung by [Danish operatic tenor] Lauritz Melchior in an old Hollywood movie” triggered a sort of Proustian memory of Mom.

Now, for a while I concluded that Rollins must be referring to the old Swedish drinking song “Helan Går” (“Bottoms Up”), which Melchior performed, uncredited, in 1948’s Luxury Liner, a “Latin” romp with George Brent and Jane Powell (and Xavier Cugat).   Melchior also recorded the tune around the same time–as did the Belafonte Folk Singers, a decade later.  Have a listen:

Okay, so … the connection is faint, or strained, or something.  I’m no musicologist.  Still: making allowances for poetic license and jazz improvisation, it works, sort of.  But then I heard Christopher Lydon’s interview with Rollins for Radio Open Source, where it emerges that it wasn’t a “Scandinavian” tune he’d had in mind at all, but a different drinking song, “Vive la Compagnie” (“Vive l’Amour,” probably English in origin), which Melchior sang in his film debut Thrill of a Romance (1945)–and which became part of his concert and nightclub repertoire (!) in the early and mid-1950s.  (It’s also included on the LP The Lighter Side of Lauritz Melchior. I didn’t take the time to do a mash-up for this one, but in case you’ve forgotten the melody of “Vive l’Amour,” here’s a hammy, late-career Melchior on YouTube:)

Fair enough: the melody and structure are much closer.  I get how “St. Thomas” could be construed as an “interpretation” of “Vive l’Amour” (which is how Rollins describes it in the Lydon interview).

The Charmer

And yet…is there any reason to think that the song to which young Sonny’s mother dandled him on her knee has anything to do with either the Swedish or the English drinking song, or even some strange cocktail of the two?  After all, Louis Walcott, later Louis Farrakhan, a/k/a “The Charmer,” had recorded the tune (as “Fire Down There,” pronounced “Fyah Doung Dey”) for Monogram  in 1953 or 54, with the McCleverty Brothers–also from the Virgin Islands–as his backup band.  (I’m no prude, but I’ve gotta say that “Fire Down There” seems scarcely more age-appropriate for young children than “Bottoms Up” or “Vive l’Amour,” even if its lyrics purport to proffer some motherly advice:)

Duke of Iron, "Fire Down There"The Duke of Iron, a favorite calypsonian of Rollins and something of a hero in the Virgin Islands, also recorded “Fire Down There” for Monogram in the early 1950s.  (The Duke’s version of “Don’t Stop the Carnival,” another famous Rollins calypso, became the theme song for VI’s nearly-rained-out carnival in 1952.  Although Lord Invader was the first to record that tune [for Decca in 1939], the Duke waxed it for Moe Asch in 1944 and performed it with Invader at Carnegie Hall in 1946.)  And pianist (and Rollins’s labelmate) Randy Weston, whose Jamaican-Panamanian father hosted friends from all over the West Indies at the family’s house in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn–and frequently took his son to Harlem to hear calypso–had already done a jazz rendition for his album Get Happy, released earlier in 1956:

So what’s the deal?  These are all remarkably similar “interpretations.”  Is Sonny just misremembering, or did Rollins, Weston, The Duke of Iron and the McClevertys all have the same obscure Anglo-Viking forebear?  Virgin Islanders, ethnomusicologists: what’s the answer?  Skol! (And tak!)


P.S.: Melchior’s filmography is at the Lauritz Melchior Web.

Posted in Calypso, Jazz | Tagged: , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

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