Calypso at Midnight!
Calypso after Midnight!
The Midnight Special concert series was launched by Alan Lomax and Peoples Songs in the fall of 1946, with the intention, as Lomax told the New York Times, of cover[ing] the whole field of American folk music systematically. The concerts began at 11.30 pm, thus enabling the organisers to hire the New York Town Hall cheaply. (I bet that today a booking for that hour of the night would attract premium rates, given the additional overtime, energy, and security costs.) These two CDs reissue the calypso concert of 21/22 December 1946, which is said in the notes to be the only one known to have been recorded. I would be surprised if Alan Lomax were as unsystematic as that, and indeed there is reason to think, as I have shown in Blues & Rhythm, that at least portions of the blues and boogie concert of 1/2 March 1947 (with Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Slim, Sonny Boy Williamson, James P. Johnson and Sidney Bechet!) may have been recorded. Be that as it may, its still remarkable that the dozen ten minute discs containing the present recordings survived in a closet for over 50 years, to be found when Lomaxs sister Bess was packing up to move house. These unpromising storage conditions seem to have affected the recordings not at all, and it sounds as if they were never played before being forgotten about. As a result, the sound quality of the CDs is, all things considered, extremely good, although some allowance has to be made for the placement of microphones; Gerald Clarks band sounds a bit distant at times, and his own guitar playing is almost entirely inaudible. We do get to hear his cultivated speaking voice on the first disc, though, for what that may be worth as compensation; I doubt that many listeners will find it as valuable as annotators Donald Hill and John Cowley appear to.
Its not surprising that they should be excited, however, for the presentation of the CDs stresses the way in which they enable us to be vicariously present at the concert; the back cover describes the CDs as a sentimental journey back to an historic performance of early calypso in the US and back to the time when progressive politics and folk music were joined [sic!]. Sentimental the project certainly becomes at times, notably in the notes dewy-eyed finale about bring[ing] the listener back to those exciting times before Senator Joseph McCarthys attempt to discredit anyone affiliated with Peoples Songs, when it was okay to be liberal and okay to care about your fellow human beings and it was okay to delight in a One-Worldism, the multiculturalism of the day. It makes you wonder why the Founding Fathers didnt proclaim the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of victim status. More importantly, the concert was certainly perceived as historic by many Trinidadians. Steve Shapiro comments in his foreword that calypso singers in Trinidad have often told me that Lord Invaders singing God Made Us All at Carnegie Hall [sic] was very important for calypso and a source of great pride for them. As when Atilla the Hun and Roaring Lion appeared on Rudy Vallees radio show in 1934, it was the attention of white people overseas that was perceived as conferring legitimacy on the music, but that was the way of things in the colonial era. Still, God Made Us All, whose call for equal rights closes the concert, is indeed a stirring song, not least because of the topical final verse, added in response to the acquittal the previous month of Batesburg, SC, police chief Linwood Shull. (In the course of administering a beating to black veteran Isaac Woodard, who was on his way home after being discharged from the Army, Shull had gouged out Woodards eyes.)
Its evident that Alan Lomax had been studying calypso and its contexts, and pioneering the development of theories about its origins, history, and meaning. This is apparent alike from his linking commentaries, from his interviewing of the singers, and from the way the concert is structured. The event was designed, obviously in close collaboration with the performers, to exhibit different aspects of calypso, and of its folkloric context. There are plenty of songs that would be well known to North Americans, like Stone Cold Dead in the Market (a hit earlier that year for Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan), Edward VIII, and Roosevelt in Trinidad (which gets a lukewarm response from the audience, probably supporters of Henry Wallaces Progressive Party to a man and woman.) Heres a clip from one of those well known numbers, Rum and Coca-Cola, a huge hit for the Andrews Sisters during World War II, but here being sung by its composer, Lord Invader on Calypso at Midnight. Like the related Yankee Dollar on the After Midnight CD, this performance may take some of its energy from the fact that, in 1946, Invader was still embroiled in his lawsuit against Morey Amsterdam who, as he bitterly comments, had the nerve to say that he composed [Rum and Coca-Cola] back here. (sound clip)
Alongside such well known numbers are performances that show the input of Trinidadian folk music to calypso, like the work song Do Lai Do, performed immediately after Rum and Coca Cola by Macbeth the Great, a chorus and assorted percussionists. The Duke of Irons calypso, Three Friends Advice, also sets the music in its social context, pondering as it does the relative merits of obeah and the Spiritual Baptists. Its followed by the latter sects Happy Land of Canaan, with a verse apiece from Lord Invader and the Duke of Iron. The Dukes singing of calypsos is usually laid back, as he seemingly tries to present himself as cool, worldly and ironic; for me, he often comes across as rather dull, but, despite the staged nature of this performance, he and the backing musicians mimic spirit possession convincingly, on the evidence both of this clip and of Lomaxs after-song comments. (sound clip)
Of more documentary value, though, because less often recorded, are the stick fighting song, Té Way, the calypso drama The GI and the Lady, and the Calypso War. Té Way has a particularly powerful vocal from Lord Invader; if only we could see, as well as (faintly) hear the percussionists DeLeon and Simeon, demonstrating the stick fighting moves. The drama and the war both feature all three singers; Macbeth the Great plays the lady in The GI and the Lady, and from the audience reaction its easy to visualise him camping it up. Calypso dramas were presented in cinemas from the 1920s, but seemingly not in the tents until 1933, and this track is a valuable documentation of one of these sung sketches. Its also another manifestation of the tensions engendered by the presence of the Yankee and the Yankee dollar during the war years, but unfortunately, in the absence of the visual elements, the music struggles to entertain. No such problems arise with Calypso War, though. A number of commercial recordings of war songs were made in the twenties and thirties, but they initially featured Houdini badmouthing his rivals, and subsequently those rivals giving it back with interest. Recordings like this one, of direct exchanges of insults by singers, are far from common. Since it features no obscenity, and no signifying about anybodys mama, the humour of this exchange never becomes as dangerous as it could in African-Americas dirty dozens, but theres still plenty of what Lord Invader calls lancing power in the insults; heres Macbeth, sticking it to Invader. (sound clip)
With its faithful inclusion and transcription of all the announcements, dialogues, and blowing into microphones, this CD might be thought to be less important as entertainment than as evidence for historians of the time when progressive politics and folk music were joined, or, more soberly, of how radical politics, ethnomusicology and folk music interacted. (Im not one who works much in that area, but for those who are, I offer a correction to the transcriptions: the Christmas hootenanny which Lomax announces was to feature, not Johnny Falk [sic], but Hally Faulk, in other words, Hally Wood, who was married to John Henry Faulk at that time.) The Town Hall concert is indeed important as a historical document, but it also survives its 50 years in the closet, to emerge as a very enjoyable listening experience. One of the advantages of laser technology over stylus and groove is that the listener can skip over interview and dialogue tracks, but these two CDs are among the few where the repetition of such material doesnt rapidly become tedious. Alan Lomax keeps things moving briskly, paints evocative word pictures of Trinidadian life and music, and elicits interesting commentary from the singers. He also introduces the band at one point: First, Hi Clark on the double bass in the back. Victor Pacheco on the fiddle, the violin. Gerald Clark, Gerald Clark the leader on the guitar. Albert Morris on the piano. And Gregory Felix, whos the man whos playing all of that clarinet. The musicians then play Im a Better Woman than You, and for once we can hear clearly just what a great band they were. (sound clip) All the singers and musicians involved clearly felt that this was a big night for calypso, and came determined to give of their best. As a result, these two CDs are both entertaining and instructive, exactly the outcome which Alan Lomax was hoping for when he set up the Midnight Special series all those years ago.
Chris Smith - 20.2.00
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