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Calypso Comes To America
Calypso dates from the latter half of the nineteenth
century in Trinidad, where it emerged out of carnival tradi-
tions rooted in folk practices that had survived the Middle
Passage from West Africa. Calypso in particular derived
from songs associated with ritual stickfighting. By the
late 1920s, however, having moved into the country's
urban centers, calypso was increasingly wedded to a
venue known as the "tent," a makeshift practice space
where new tunes were sung before each year's pre-
Lenten Carnival. Calypsonians composed topical songs
that aired the news of the day, adopted positions on re-
lations between men and women (usually from the
male singer's point of view), or commented on other
salient social and political issues. Although musical
styles and backing instrumentation evolved over
the ensuing decades, the character and function of
calypso remained essentially unchanged – at least in
Trinidad and Tobago (and some other Caribbean
countries). A seasonal music, it was one of the
principal forms of cultural expression for the largely Afro-
Trinidadian segment of a multicultural society.
Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, as
calypso lyrics took up new issues each carnival season, the
melodies, borrowed from Caribbean folk tunes and Venezuelan
string bands, remained relatively static, often recycled from
year to year. In the 1930s, however, new influences, notably
American swing and pop music, entered the mix, and many per-
formers began composing their own melodies, as well. The
growing popularity of a dapper calypsonian called 'The Lion'
(Hubert Raphael Charles, a/k/a Raphael De Leon) was key to
this development. Lion, later known as 'The Roaring Lion,' was
enamored of American popular singers, especially the Mills
Brothers (the best-selling U.S. vocal group of the 1930s) and
Bing Crosby (the most popular solo crooner). As radio and the
movies helped globalize American pop, other calypsonians, no-
tably King Radio and The Growler, followed Lion's lead. (In
Radio's buoyant 1938 road march
[Track 5]
, a popular
favorite and an oddly upbeat story of betrayal that would
become a Calypso-Craze warhorse, you can almost hear the
Jazz Age yielding to Swing.) By the 1940s, Trinidadian calypso,
while still functioning as a seasonal topical music associated
with Carnival, had long since begun to incorporate "foreign"
Before the early 1930s only a handful of West Indian
singers and bandleaders had recorded in the United States,
most notably Wilmoth Houdini (Edgar Leon Sinclair, a/k/a
Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks), an émigré whose prolific
discography included tunes on both Trinidadian and American
themes. (Because of the conflicting and often inflated
accounts he gave of himself, Houdini's early life is somewhat
mysterious; the most extensive portrait is Joseph Mitchell's
Houdini's Picnic,'
which first appeared in the 'New
Yorker' and lives on in the collection 'Up In The Old Hotel.')
But in 1934, calypsonians from Trinidad began making annual
visits to New York City to wax the latest carnival hits, which
were then sold primarily in the Caribbean but also to the West
Indian community in New York. D
, which recorded hundreds
of sides, was the dominant force in calypso over the next
decade, though RCA V
entered the fray for two brief years,
releasing calypso 78s on its B
label. (For more on this
"golden" era of recorded calypso, see the B
box set
'West Indian Rhythm.')
Only two calypsonians, The Lion and Atilla The Hun, made
the trip that first year. The most influential recording of their
session was undoubtedly Lion's
Ugly Woman
[Track 1]
, whose
cheerfully chauvinist axiom (
"From a logical point of view/
Always marry a woman uglier than you"
) made it an anthem of
male self-interest for decades to come. Lion himself would
revisit the tune several more times over the course of his six-
decade career.
) This 1946 version
Ugly Woman
(first issued on
in 1945) is famously
mislabeled: the singer is
not The Lion, but MacBeth The
Great. The present set includes
Lion’s original 1934 recording
on B
1,2,3,4,5,6 8,9,10,11
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