Rounder Unearths Calypso Treasure
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 7 Apr 100 04:50:14 -0700
Subject: Rounder Unearths Calypso Treasure
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
Excerpted-from: HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW: April, 2000
From: Doug Bright <email@example.com>
ROUNDER LABEL UNEARTHS CALYPSO TREASURE
By Doug Bright
In the fall of 1946, folklorist Alan Lomax and People's Songs Inc.
launched an ambitious concert series at Town Hall in the heart of New
York City. "We plan to cover the whole field of American folk music
systematically in these concerts," Lomax announced at the time. "Right from
the start, these concerts are going to be different from anything that's
been heard in New York so far." Produced under the name of The Midnight
Special, the concerts were held between 11 PM and 1 AM and organized with
musical themes such as Ballads At Midnight and Blues At Midnight. On
December 21st, 1946, one of the series' most memorable shows, Calypso At
Midnight, took place at Town Hall. Thought for many years to be the only
concert in the series that got recorded for posterity, it was considered
by calypsonians in both the U.S. and Trinidad as a landmark event in the
music's popularization. Yet, like Benny Goodman's immortal 1938 Carnegie
Hall concert, the 78RPM ACETATE DISCS ON WHICH IT WAS RECORDED LAY FORGOTTEN
AND UNHEARD FOR YEARS. It wasn't until 1996, in fact, that Bess Hawes,
Lomax's sister, discovered the twelve 10-minute discs in a box in her closet
as she was preparing to move. The happy result is that this legendary
concert, released on Rounder Records last fall, will be the first in the
label's Concert and Radio Series from the Lomax archives.
Hosted by Alan Lomax himself, Calypso At Midnight spotlighted three of
the music's foremost practitioners. Although all three calypsonians
were natives of Trinidad, The Duke of Iron (Cecil Anderson) and Macbeth
The Great (Patrick McDonald) had established their performing and recording
careers as immigrants in New York during the 1930's and '40's. Lord Invader
(Rupert Grant), on the other hand, had become Trinidad's most prominent
calypsonian by the time the Town Hall concert took place. They were backed
by a small group led by guitarist Gerald Clark, the bandleader who had been
almost single-handedly responsible for the creation, promotion, and
expansion of the New York calypso scene.
The concert opens on the first CD, entitled CALYPSO AT MIDNIGHT, with
a brief explanation by Alan Lomax of calypso's multicultural roots.
"Its got streaks of African in it; its got stripes of Spanish; its got
little elements of French; but somehow it all gets sung in English," he
explains. "And it covers every subject under the sun. Were about to begin
now. New York City's Times Square area, is about to be invaded by the
As the audience applauds, the band strikes up "Calypso Invasion", a
rouser in minor key written and led by The Duke of Iron, and the magic
begins. "Since it may be a little hard for some of you to get all the words,
we're gonna start off with a sort of a primer in calypso, with the songs
that you probably have heard," Lomax explains. With that, he introduces
Macbeth The Great, who leads his colleagues in a calypso ballad which had
just scored a huge hit for Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, "Stone Cold
Dead In The Market".
The percussion instrument Macbeth has been playing all the while, a
bottle struck with a spoon, provokes one of the concert's funniest
exchanges. "What's that instrument that you have there?" Lomax asks.
"Oh, well this is known as a Trinidadian harp," Macbeth replies,
eliciting a chuckle from concert producer and audience alike.
"Well how do you go about making a Trinidadian harp?" Lomax inquires.
"Well the first thing, you have to visit the grog shop and get the
bottle," Macbeth answers. "Then you get the contents in the bottle and
you dispose with that. And you sound it, and if it don't sound right, you
go back and get other one until you get the right sound. So if you have
one here for me to try out, I will be only too glad to do it for you."
The Duke of Iron then continues the segment of more familiar calypsos
with "Ugly Woman," which scored a rock-and-roll hit for Jimmy Soul
around 1961 under the title of "If You Want To Be Happy". "So from a logical
point of view," the Duke advises, "you better love a woman uglier than
you." Lord Invader follows up with what was then the biggest calypso hit
of all time, "Rum and Coca-Cola", explaining how he had composed it and
bandleader Morey Amsterdam had heard it in Trinidad and expropriated it
back home with an American copyright. Invader's claim of ownership was
still in litigation at the time of the Town Hall concert, but he eventually
won $150,000 in royalties even though Amsterdam retained the copyright.
Although the chorus and melody are virtually the same in both Invader's
original and the Andrews Sisters' hit version, Amsterdam's verses were
crafted to obscure the darker meaning of the well-known line, "Both mother
and daughter working for the Yankee dollar."
After a brief exploration of pre-calypso forms like primitive West
Indian work songs and spirituals, the three calypsonians proceed, in
the course of the evening, to prove Alan Lomax's assertion that calypso
covers every subject under the sun--comparative religion, the battle of
the sexes, the British royal family, FDR's 1936 visit to Trinidad, and the
pitfalls of gambling. Among the highlights are two calypsos repopularized
by Harry Belafonte ten years after the Town Hall concert: "Man Smart,
Woman Smarter" and "Edward VIII", also known as "Love Alone", which deals
with the British monarch's abdication in 1936 to marry an American divorcee.
When the song ends, The Duke of Iron enthusiastically introduces bandleader
Gerald Clark before intermission.
The concert resumes on the second CD, entitled CALYPSO AFTER MIDNIGHT.
After announcing a Christmas hootenanny for the following day, a Josh White
blues concert the following month, and a second calypso concert proposed
for the first of February, Alan Lomax previews the next segment of the
show. "The next half of the concert," he announces, "we're going to try to
give you a slight impression of what Mardi-gras in Trinidad is like. We're
going to have some new songs, some songs improvised on the stage, and some
of the other events that happen in the time of Mardi-gras. Imagine about
midnight, toward the end of the Mardi-gras fiesta, the streets are pretty
quiet. Most of the people are sleepin' it off, a lot of others are asleep,
but there's one band that's moving down the street. It's dark, and this
band is sort-of sleepily singing its way toward the calypso tent. Let's
open the curtain and see it."
As the curtain opens, Gregory Felix's high and exuberant clarinet
heralds "Don't Stop The Carnival," a theme originated by Lord Invader
in 1939 when the prospect of war threatened the annual festivities in
Trinidad. Led by The Duke of Iron, it's one of the show's most magical
moments. "Now everybody love the carnival!" he intones joyously.
"No, don't stop the carnival," the chorus responds.
"Yeah, lord, it's a decent bacchanal!"
"No, don't stop the carnival!"
The next number, a venerable old calypso led by Macbeth, keeps the
infectious energy going. "The next number, ladies and gentlemen, is entitled
"My Donkey Wants Water", but he would do better with a little rum."
"Well," says Lomax when the song is finished, , "you can imagine by
this time the calypsonians and their crowd have got into the calypso
tent where the battle of the calypsonians is gonna happen. From now on,
everybody's out to carve everybody else." Before the actual poetic carving
match, however, Invader delivers a newly composed calypso, "That Game Named
Poker". The band is then featured in a hot Caribbean drumming demonstration
and an instrumental version of the calypso classic "I'm a Better Woman Than
You", allowing the three headliners time to get in costume for a calypso
drama written by Lord Invader. Dealing with the hottest of hot topics in
wartime Trinidad, it's called "The G.I. and The Lady". In this engagingly
melodic piece, a Trinidadian and an American soldier compete for the love
of a native woman, and even if you don't have a degree in economics, you
can probably guess who wins. "Let's have The Lord Invader out for a bow!"
Lomax proposes when the drama is finished.
In the ultimate quest for authenticity, the two drummers demonstrate
another carnival tradition: the stick fight, which Lomax describes as "a
Trinidadian boxing match". "Like everything in the West Indies," he
explains, "boxing, too, is done to rhythm: there's a tune to it." The
accompanying song is delivered by Lord Invader in a French Creole dialect,
and as the tempo quickens, the interaction of the sticks can be heard,
giving the impression that stick-fighting must be somewhat similar to
fencing. After The Duke of Iron delivers "Roosevelt In Trinidad," written
and recorded by Trinidad calypsonian Atilla The Hun in 1936, it's time for
open, extemporaneous poetic combat among the three headliners. After the
band establishes the melody they are to follow, the three calypsonians
trade boasts and insults that draw hearty laughter from Alan Lomax, who is
obviously having the time of his life.
By now the concert has run overtime, and Lomax announces the final
number. The audience immediately begins shouting requests, and Lord
Invader, in response to one of them, sings his follow-up to "Rum and
Coca-Cola", "Yankee Dollar". "Let's do "God Made Us All," Lomax proposes.
Honoring Lomax's request, Lord Invader delivers the song: a moving plea
for racial harmony and integration. It's a fitting end for such a historic
The release of Alan Lomax's 1946 Town Hall calypso concert is as proud
a moment for Rounder Records today as was the original performance
for those who presented it. Despite the age of the acetate discs on which
the concert was recorded, the sound is surprisingly clear, with only a
slight amount of surface noise at rare moments. The original recording,
probably done by relying on a direct connection to the house's PA system,
didn't pick up Gerald Clark's small orchestra as well as Alan Lomax might
have wished, but the listening is still quite comfortable. If this treasure
of calypso documentation is only the beginning of Rounder's Concert and
Radio Series, I, for one, can hardly wait for the follow-up.
(CALYPSO AT MIDNIGHT. Rounder 11661-1840.
CALYPSO AFTER MIDNIGHT. Rounder 11661-1841.)
© 2000 Peter Langston