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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Posts Tagged ‘Virgin Islands’

“Don’t ask me nothin’ at all. Just give me the match and oil.”

Posted by Michael Eldridge on April 3, 2018

What I know—or thought I knew—about Virgin Islands calypso corresponds almost exactly* to what I know about the Duke of Iron’s connection to the Virgin Islands, which I wrote about in passing here, years ago. (Formerly the Danish Virgin Islands, St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas were acquired by the United States during World War I as a hedge against the Huns. Like America’s other Caribbean colony forty miles to the west, the U.S. Virgin Islands were devastated last fall by Hurricane Maria—after being pummeled by Hurricane Irma two weeks earlier. You can contribute to the ongoing relief effort being coordinated by the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands.)

But sometimes you know more than you think you know.

When I read in today’s New York Times about Denmark’s “first public monument to a black woman,” viz. a statue of Mary Thomas, one of the “three queens” who led the workers’ uprising known as “Fireburn” in the Danish Virgin Islands in 1878, I thought:  there must be calypsos about this woman.  I was only partly wrong.

There is in fact a song, “Queen Mary”—so well known (or so I learned today) that it’s St. Croix’s unofficial anthem. And there was a stretch in the 1950s, when musicians from all over the Caribbean were eager to supply a bull market for it in the United States, when the tune would indeed have been called a “calypso.” But it’s really an example of what’s more properly dubbed scratch band or fungi music—or lately (and since 2003, officially) quelbe—whose sources and evolution are similar to those of calypso.  I once knew this, vaguely, but Daniel Sheehy reminded me of it in his liner notes to a 2016 CD of that name by Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Nights, on Smithsonian Folkways records.

sfw40568

As soon as I served up the 30-second sample of Stanley’s rendition of “Queen Mary,” I suddenly realized that I already knew the song, and Google helped me remember from where: it also closes the album Crucian Scratch Band Music, by serious-contender-for-best-band-name-ever Blinky and the Roadmasters, which I have on a cassette somewhere in a box in the rafters of my garage.

You can learn more about the historical “Queen Mary” Thomas at a website begun by the Danish National Archives just last year.  The entry on Thomas, “The three rebel queens,” is sometimes more than a bit tone-deaf: it gratuitously comments that the rebel leader “had become somewhat intoxicated,” was “very active in vandalism,” and “had previously been punished for mistreating one of her children” (she had three, “although she was unwed”).

queen-mary

But you can also hear it trying not to be so racist and Eurocentric—and the site itself, which has digitized thousands of documents related to the colonial administration of the Danish West Indies, part of a belated effort national reckoning—is quite remarkable.

As for the statue of Mary Thomas, which sits in front of an old sugar and rum warehouse near the prison in Copenhagen where she was jailed for her role in the rebellion: its co-sculptor, Virgin Islander La Vaughn Belle, said that “it’s about challenging Denmark’s collective memory and changing it.”  Here in the U.S., we’ve had one or two discussions recently about public statuary, including a few in my little burg, where a bronze William McKinley, who has no connection to this place, has stood incongruously in the town square since 1906.  There’s still the small matter of Greenland, of course, but a hundred years after Denmark turned over its imperial keys to the United States, the former vendor could teach a thing or two to the buyer. Queen Mary gyal: weh yu gwan go bun?


*With that “almost,” I’m not counting the two dozen or so tunes I’ve heard by “Calypso Craze”-era stars like Lloyd Thomas, the Mighty Zebra, and the Fabulous McClevertys.

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