Pacotille Industry: Jean Meets Joe
By the time the 1940 Bases for Destroyers agreement1 between the United States and Great Britain was finally enacted in 1941, World War II was in full swing. In this pact (which was actually signed in the previous year) the United States had agreed to supply the U.K. with fifty mothballed destroyers in exchange for land leases throughout Britain’s Atlantic colonies. An increasingly concerned U.S.A. was beginning to wade into the war in earnest. And by the end of 1941, when they were attacked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese navy, the Americans finally jumped into the global conflict with both feet. A formerly hesitant American population was now calling for blood. Hundreds of American military bases were constructed throughout the Caribbean to defend the strategic ports of the Americas, most importantly the Panama Canal. Some two hundred and twenty-five bases would be built in Trinidad & Tobago alone, for Trinidad was the largest petroleum refinery in all the British Empire and located crucially at the Atlantic gateway to Latin America. The influx of over a hundred thousand American servicemen to staff the bases increased the population of T&T by a third in the four years it would take to end the war.2
The Americans brought with them a kit of cultural boons, economic benefits, and social problems, and they brought these to an island colony that, like Felix the Cat’s bag, was far bigger on the inside than on the outside. On their military maps, the colony seemed little more than a speck, but once arrived at Point-à-Pierre, Fort Read, or Chaguaramas, a soldier or sailor from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas or Oklahoma might be shocked to find himself surrounded not only by a great sea on one side and a great ocean on the other, not only by the trolleys and department stores of Port-of-Spain on one side and tropical jungle, swamp or dry forest on the other, but also by ‘Hindoos,’ ‘Mohammedans’ and Roman Catholics of all stripes and pigmentations, some of whom knew more about New York than he did—sometimes from personal experience. But the Americans also greatly expanded the view of the locals in myriad aspects of speech, terminologies, personal mannerisms, dress and social customs. Indeed, the close encounter with Americans would change Trinidad and Tobago culture forever.
The influx of ‘government issued’ Americans (i.e., “G.I.’s”) had a major impact on Trinbagonian-British relations, especially in regard to British authority. The Yankees were quite another kind of white people, far more inclined to candour and joviality, not to mention random acts of generosity. And the employment prospects brought by their ongoing construction of bases and related projects (such as the cutting and paving of roads and runways, and the putting up of various ancillary and temporary structures) brought to Trinidad and Tobago a kind of boomtown excitement where men and women from all walks of life might suddenly vacate their relatively low paying positions on agricultural estates, or in households, offices, schools or even civil service jobs to seek better-paying prospects with the Americans.3 Before their eyes, the local British creoles saw their control of the colony slipping through their fingers as they fell in the esteem of black, brown and yellow locals alike. Their social and monetary currency paled beside the Yankees with their mighty greenbacks.
The loss of prestige and control that representatives of the Empire incurred beside the polished brass of the American servicemen was mirrored in the Trinbagonian household itself. For if the United Kingdom was an empire with a king to whom the colony pledged it fealty, the colonial mind-set dictated that in the microcosmic Trinbagonian home the man (whether, white, black, brown or yellow) was king. But after Bases for Destroyers, the Trini ‘man of the house’ found that his woman might stop answering to him so faithfully if she found a way to earn some of those Yankee dollars for herself. More disturbing yet was that the ways in which she might do this earning described a broad spectrum of legitimate, semi-legitimate, socially illegitimate but legally legitimate, and outright illegal endeavours. Regardless of how she acquired those Yankee dollars, they brought for her an independence she might not have known before.
Let us not forget that World War II was in many ways the completion of outstanding business from World War I (particularly between Germany and its neighbours in Western Europe and Russia) and that a global depression had occurred between these two international conflicts. Depression-era economics, but also a host of related social problems, and finally the labour uprisings across the British West Indies had shaped the political scene in Trinidad in the late 1930s.4 It was into this atmosphere of growing nationalism, anti-colonial sentiment, and the violently suppressed labour actions of the late 1930s still fresh in the national memory, that the Americans arrived, flush with cash, and ready for a war with a foreign enemy. It wouldn’t be just the men that would answer the call for workers at the American bases. The women would respond, too, for whether their men strutted around thinking they were cocks of the walk or not, the daily finances of the home were often a woman’s concern, and during the Global Depression the women had tired of seeing their biscuit tins go empty. When the Yankees showed up, spit shined, fascinated, and talkin’ jive, it seemed like bellies, and maybe even biscuit tins, might fill up again. The men would find out that in addition to regular work in the service industry, the women had an extra way of bringing home a little “dough.” It wasn’t every woman’s interest, but the option was there if she wanted it. And that’s what the Yankee presence offered: options.
In Trinidad & Tobago the Americans’ war was with the German U-Boats and that fighting took place at sea, not on the streets of Port-of-Spain or San Fernando. So when they were on land, the Yankees spent their time training, building, and seeking entertainments in the local establishments. It goes without saying that this all male force would be seeking female company and it is in this area that the Trinbagonian man perceived his most personal loss of control—the control he thought he’d enjoyed until now. It was not just the relative wealth and charm of the Americans that would become an antagonistic factor in the local political and gender relations, but also the sliding, overlapping categories of employment and romance that were created by the mixture of labour, leisure, socializing and monetary gain that took place between local women and the foreign occupiers. At the end of the workday, local men left the Yankees at the workplace. But when the government issued “Joes” themselves left the workplace on liberty, they and the local men did not move in the same circles. The Joes might have been a more jovial and affable lot than the British but their race relations were arguably even more fraught and confusing than those of Englishmen. American ideas about race effected hard divisions between American and local males in the social sphere. A local man could assist an American in his labours, he could bring him drinks or play him music but he usually could not sit and drink with him, except if the American had come to his house for a little anthropological ‘slumming.’
The Yankee relationship with local women was quite another matter. It was not that women had more options than local men. They certainly couldn’t sign up as carpenters or other tradesmen on the base and were not even accepted to do much of the menial labour there so local men enjoyed certain hiring privileges over their female counterparts. It was the 1940s after all. There were, however, certain ‘jobs’ only open to women, although some of these could hardly be considered counter-advantages or privileges by any yardstick of that time.
While a Joe’s interest in a local woman was more likely than not exploitive, a clever “mopsy” might hope to manage those interests, and exploit the Yankee in return. It was a dangerous game, especially in light of the privileged position from which the Yankee did his bargaining. If the woman lost at this game, she had little recourse and might return home not only empty-handed but defiled, humiliated, pregnant, then spurned by her family, including her husband of course. Some husbands were known to look the other way as their wives returned in the wee hours of the morning from a night of fêting with the Yanks…because she was probably coming home with some change from all those trips to the bar, a little honorarium for her troubles, or a bit more because she had gone “all in.” Of course, this phenomenon of sliding scales between sex and economics is known in occupied societies throughout the world and is notable for crossing religious, racial and other social boundaries within the exempt bubble of wartime. It is an international version of what Trinidadians call the pacotille—the private social transgression behind closed doors.
There is no stereotype of the serviceman or his local mopsy that obtains across the board. Sometimes he and his local woman actually fell in love. Sometimes their pacotille was the square business of a monetary transaction. Sometimes jealous husbands got involved and people got injured; sometimes the woman’s reputation was destroyed, and/or she was left pregnant with a foreigner’s baby or infected with a venereal disease; other times she went back to office clerking or even teaching the next morning (or after the occupation), relatively unharmed by those heady nights of the war.
From their first large-scale arrivals in 1941, the Americans had been greeted by women officially charged with hosting them under chaperoned conditions. Euro-Trinidadian women were encouraged to socialize with the brave, white servicemen, and in that pre-feminist way, to help put their minds at ease with genteel conversation, evening dances, and other innocuous amusements. But the term “hostess” (like the pet name, mopsy) quickly developed into a very malleable one as the number and variety of women necessary to “host” all these thousands of servicemen, with their own diverse notions of female companionship, greatly expanded.5 Trinbagonian women did not single-handedly expand the meaning of this term, “hostess.” Rather the servicemen, far from home, in an exotic tropical locale with an even more exotic rainbow of female natives had developed certain ideas about the length and breadth of accommodations that they might expect from the local “hostesses.” They also detected that the locals clamoured for those Yankee dollars. The situation evolved quite rapidly between 1941 and 1943 into the sliding scale of love, sex and money.
Some local women eventually fell victim to the greatly expanded expectations of the servicemen. Others, with the memory of the global depression still fresh in their minds and still affecting their bankbooks, rolled with the proverbial punches and hesitantly made the requested pacotilles. Yet others were fascinated by the Americans, their talk, their boisterous and occasionally gallant ways, fell in love. As it so happened, love too has its own internal sliding scale and was a relative term in the broadened market of companionships developing between foreign servicemen and local women. No doubt, some women loved like there was no tomorrow, while others started gingerly turning ideas of matrimony over and over in their minds. A final variety of local woman saw nothing but economic possibilities in companionship, and this professional class of ‘full service’ hostesses grew considerably in number, sometimes even augmented by staff from Venezuela.6 Their ancient profession developed into a mutable hierarchy of full-timers, part-timers and occasional weekenders. It was a complicated, even confusing situation to say the least for Trinbagonian women. And the local men, like the local British elite, felt their hegemony overthrown by these damned Yankees.
Rum with a Coca Cola Chaser
The Americans for their part were fascinated not only with the women, but with the culture and music of the colony, knocking about the clubs, hotels, sporting events, Calypso tents and even religious rituals and impromptu performances, sometimes joining in, with their own instruments. They quickly learned the Calypso ropes, or chords and melodies as it were. They wrote home and eventually went home at the end of their tours with collections of Calypso recordings, which they continued to augment back in the States. In the years directly following the war they vastly expanded the audience for Calypso not just among their own ranks but by spreading the word to people who hadn’t yet discovered this West Indian musical idiom. The Calypso Craze of the 1950s and 60s was born of their enthusiasm for the music and—despite the fact that more American ships were sunk in the Caribbean theatre in the first half of the war than anywhere else in the world—their nostalgia for those relatively pleasant memories from the wartime West Indies. It wasn’t long after the encounter between the Yankees and Trinidad & Tobago that Calypsos were appearing in Hollywood movies, some even sung by the Trinidadian bit part player and nightclub performer, Sir Lancelot.
Lancelot’s Trinidad is Changing perhaps expectedly celebrated the advent of Americans in Trinidad, turning the island into a “tropical New York.” After all, Lancelot was based in the U.S.A. and made his bread and butter there. But Lord Invader made Calypso after Calypso about how the Yankees in Trinidad had wrecked his life. The most famous of these is, of course, the song he composed with Lionel Belasco, Rum and Coca Cola, a song later covered illegally in a whitewashed version by the Andrew Sisters. Some of the original 1943 lyrics went,
I had a little girlfriend the other day
But her mother came and took her away
Herself, her mother, and her sisters
Went in a cab with some soldiers
…There are some aristos [aristocratic types] in Port-of-Spain
I know a lot but I won’t call names
And in the day they wouldn’t give you a ‘right’
But you should see them with the foreigners in the night
They bought rum and Coca Cola
Went down Point Cumana
Both mothers and daughters
Working for their Yankee dollars
I knew a couple who got married one afternoon
And was to fly to Miami on their honeymoon
But the bride run away with the soldier lad
And the stupid husband went staring mad
Jean, Dinah and Joe
Lord Invader’s then timely, but now timeless Rum and Coca Cola was not the last exposé on wartime ‘sex-o-nomics.’ A decade after the war, a young scion of Calypso’s next great generation would begin his career by toasting the departure of the Americans and the resultant collapse of that wartime ‘pacotille industry’ that had pulled women away from their husbands, sweet-men, and sundry papas toyloy, out from behind their coal pots, jooking boards, and embroidered coverlets. It was now 1956 and a major scale back of the American presence at Chaguaramas, the most (in)famous of the bases, was taking place.
The young singer was a fellow named Slinger Francisco that had been liming around the tents and hustling tourists up on the Lookout and down the Gaza Strip, singing calypsos and other ditties for tips.7 His sobriquet up until recently had been Little Sparrow for the quick, excited movements he made on stage at the Old Brigade Tent, even as his upperclassmen stood stationary as they sung, like the classical poets of old. But in the past couple of years he had steadily gained in notoriety, and was singing his own songs now, not the songbooks of the calypso greats (many of whom had been eyeing him with interest). Now he was insisting that people call him The Mighty Sparrow. He wasn’t just a quarrelsome little garden bird anymore. He was about to win the Calypso Monarch competition of 1956 and would also knock them for six in the Road March with a song about the aftermath of the war and the impending drawing down at Chaguaramas. Evolutionists hadn’t yet developed the notion that birds might be descended from the mighty dinosaurs but Sparrow seemed to have figured that out and had taken his place at the top of the Calypso food chain, above a Roaring Lion, a Growling Tiger and a plethora of Lords.
The Mighty Sparrow’s triumphant debut single and Road March anthem was Jean and Dinah. It had an unusual 16-bar chorus but everyone thought it was fun to sing, including at the top of their lungs on Carnival day. Even the children were singing it, clueless of the offense it was giving to their parents and the lickings they were about to get for intoning its indecencies.8 Its lyrics were not the stuff of polite gallery banter. It was a song of masculine retribution upon the “hostesses” of World War II. But young Mighty Sparrow was not advocating jail time for the numberless violations of the colony’s decency laws, nor for the return of these U.S.O. jamettes to their barrack yard apartments or gingerbread ajoupas. He was all for leaving them right where they were—down Marine Square and certain streets in the eastern part of the city, loitering around the Savannah, just beyond the reach of hotel watchmen. Instead, the Mighty Sparrow advocated taking advantage of the now depressed jamette economy.
Well the girls in town feelin’ bad;
No more Yankees in Trinidad.
They gonna close down de base for good.
Dem girls have to make out how dey could.
Brother, is now dey pack up in town,
In for a penny and in for a pound.
Believe me, it’s competition for so,
Trouble in the town when de price drop low.
(And when yuh bounce up)
Jean and Dinah,
Rosita and Clementina,
‘Round de corner posin.’
Bet your life is something dey sellin.’
And if you catch dem broken,
You can get them all for nuttin.’
Don’t make a row.
De Yankees gone and Sparrow take over now!
Things bad, it’s to hear dem cry,
Not a sailor in town; de nightclubs dry.
Only West Indians like me or you,
Goin’ to get a drink or two.
And as we have t’ings back in control,
I seekin’ revenge with meh heart and soul.
Brother, when a spread de news around,
It’s to see how dem cavemen comin’ to town.
It’s de Glamour Boys again.
We are going to rule Port-of-Spain.
No more Yankee to spoil de fête;
Dorothy have to take what she get.
All o’ dem who used to make style,
Dey takin’ two shilling with a smile.
No more hotel to rest your head.
By the sweat of thy brow, thou shall eat bread!
No, Sparrow’s was no clarion call to return to the old (and always rosily imagined) pre-war arrangements as the post-war Americans themselves were doing back home by yanking women off the assembly lines and handing them back their dry-rotted kitchen aprons. Instead Sparrow was more interested in seeing those style-making, high brown “aristos” from Lord Invader’s song work even harder, and for a fraction of the former compensation.
Jean and Dinah is a lesson in pre-depression (but also Neoliberal) capitalism: competition breeds not only lower prices for the consumer but also more desperate workers who know that in an unregulated economy where they are stripped of the right to collectively bargain, they are expandable. But young Sparrow hadn’t met Milton Friedman and hadn’t shown up in Port-of-Spain, fresh from Grenada, with a collection of Ayn Rand novels under his arm. He was only one-year old when he came to Trinidad!9 And he certainly was not driven by some cool, heartless ideology to snipe cheap, convenient sex from the now abandoned, and desperate prostitute class of Port-of-Spain. No, his motivation was hotter than that. By the second verse it is clear that Slinger has a score to settle. Vengeance is his motivation. And by the third verse when he calls in his posse, the Glamour Boys (no doubt a loosely affiliated crew of post-war ‘saga boys’), and then the general male public, we realize that the departure of the occupying Americans is leaving a civil war in its wake, a bona fide battle of the sexes.
The reference to the general male public as “cavemen” is a telling detail that supports this epic interpretation of the gender conflict that Sparrow describes. The popular term is used by Atilla in his 1937 duet with Roaring Lion, I Will String Along with You. In that cynical Calypso-ised riff on the 1934 Dick Powell song from the film 20,000 Sweethearts, the two Calypsonians argue over the proper attitude towards female partners. Lion thinks he should be “boss of the show” whereas Atilla (who is otherwise infamous for his film noir levels of distrust for women in songs like Women Will Rule the World) admonishes Lion from the female perspective,
Lion, you’re as stupid as you can be
You know nothing of women’s psychology
You say you are loving, but you are rough
You can’t get away with that caveman stuff
Thus at least since 1937, the reference in song to the “caveman” had echoed common parlance, in which the caveman denoted a dominating, even brutish male in his interactions with women. By inviting the cavemen to town to take advantage of Jean, Dinah, Rosita, Clementina and the rest, the young Glamour Boy, Sparrow, is tossing his leavings to an even more vengeful, more brutal squad of his native male insurgency. Like the numberless African, Latin American and South/Southeast Asian dictators of the post-war (and “post-colonial”) era, young Sparrow is not just interested in banishing the occupiers but in taking their place. He evinces a real sense of vainglory in his proposed “take-over” as he suddenly switches from a natural use of contractions and local idioms throughout the Jean and Dinah to a clearly enunciated, and somewhat despotic voice when he says of himself and the Glamour Boys posse, “We are going to rule Port-of-Spain!”
The following verse in the song introduces another, often forgotten cohort of Jean, Dinah, Rosita and Clementina, and would-be victim of the Glamour Boys. She is easy to miss because she is a Calypso leitmotif of the time. Going by the chorus, it is actually easy to forget that five women, not four, are named in the song and “Dorothy” is the fifth of these. When Sparrow gleefully notes that there will be “no more Yankees to spoil de fête” it is so he can point out that “Dorothy have to take what she get!” The use of the generic “Dorothy” to denote an unmanageable woman, or one of questionable morals was calypso code since well before the war. In the calypso recordings from 1936 to 1946, literally dozens of such compositions can be counted, far outnumbering all other female names (Caroline, Mathilda, Millicent etc.). It was certainly not anyone’s decision to make Dorothy the ‘scarlet name’ as it were but rather the result of a kind of organic consensus that had settled into place as the calypsos responded to each other in the market tent of musical ideas. Future generations of calypsonians, at least those with long memories and a reverence for tradition, would revisit the name, from Kitchener’s patient in Dr. Kitch (1963) to Black Stalin’s wajang girlfriend in 1985’s Wait Dorothy, who must wait impatiently for Stalin to fire another salvo against the injustices in the land before he can get back to ‘jammin’ she down!’ Of course, not every Dorothy in calypso is trouble. Even Sparrow used the name in more positive lights, and on several different occasions. His 1958-9 Dorothy is a sincere love song to a somewhat demure, and “divine” lady, contrasting starkly with the Dorothy in his 1956 debut song who is warned that she will sweat for her pay. In 1956, poor Dorothy (along with Jean and the rest o’ them) is the sacrificial cock on the blooded altar of Sparrow’s career.
It goes without saying that Calypso has been a male dominated ‘profession’ from the beginning even though every generation has had a few celebrated female kaisonians, from before Lady Iere, up through Calypso Rose and Singing Francine, Singing Sandra and beyond. As the music has changed to various kinds of Soca, the number of women in the business has been steadily increasing. The number of female singers today is more than just a few ‘United Sisters’ like in the 1990s. Yet, even with the numbers of female bards improving steadily since the 1970s the overarching didactic, sometimes bellicose form, lyrical content and sexually anxious tone of the overarching musical form, Calypso-Soca, is historically masculine and often masculinist. Keith Warner and Gordon Rohlehr have written at length about the “male female interplay” in Calypso.10 The calypsos of the mid-20th century were an apogee in a uniquely modern medium, one characterized by stylized dialogue, terse and unflinching commentary on current events, dry wit and intense gender anxieties. Like a work of noir pulp fiction, Sparrow’s Jean and Dinah lays male anxieties bare about the financially liberated (if only temporarily) female who disregards hypernormative social restrictions on her sexuality, and proposes a kind of savage corrective in the name of the public good.
Jean and Dinah was a song about triumphing over those haughty toffers who in wartime used to step over the heads of the local fellows, but who were now reduced to desperation as their industry collapsed. It won for the young Sparrow the title of Calypso Monarch, and became 1956’s Road March to boot. Jean and Dinah was also a personal triumph for Sparrow who had pitched the catchy tune to Jean Antoni at the Salvatori department store as a possible jingle for the firm as was the custom for calypsonians to do in the 1930s through 50s. The original lyrics were,
Jean and Dinah,
Rosita and Clementina
Came to me one morning
After they complete their shopping.
And they told me, “Honey,
I never had more luxury
More than when ah stop,
And went into Salvatori to shop.”
When Salvatori’s had finally given Sparrow an audition, after persistent overtures from the singer, they essentially told him ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ and they never did. Now they were probably sorry.
From the end of the World War II until 1967, there was a drawing down of American personnel from the military bases established in the Bases for Destroyers Agreement. What was supposed to be a 99-year lease of Trinidadian land had been truncated at the urging of Dr. Eric Williams who had steadily advocated for the forfeiture of the lease even before he and his political party, the People’s National Movement, had won independence for the nation of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Thus, 1956, the year of Jean and Dinah, saw a sudden and major scaling back of personnel and activities at Chaguaramas especially and so the American military and its effect on local gender relations were on everybody’s mind. Other calypsonians celebrated the departure of the Yankees as well. Small Island Pride’s Apple Vendor advocates the same devaluation of the Dorothy’s services, complaining that,
One o’ dem try to rob me.
Takin’ me for a Yankee,
I say, “Gyirl, you doh know de job,
Since de Yankees gone de price is a bob!”
Cypher’s Freshwater Yankee (1969) also gave a hilarious retrospective treatment of a local man pretending to be a Yankee soldier to ride out on the chevronned coattails of the departing Yankees.
It would not be until 1963 that the Yankees had finally returned Chaguaramas to the newly independent T&T government and the Americans had finally gone their way. But while waving goodbye at their khaki backs, Sparrow took one last crack at wartime sexonomics.
Jean and Dinah was the first published example of Sparrow’s numberless bravado songs, famed for their projections of masculinity (compare Jean and Dinah to 1964’s Village Ram or 1969’s Sasaye). However, Sparrow has not simply purveyed a macho view of Trinbago’s fraught post-war gender relations. In some songs he has seemed to reverse or at least nuance his position by critiquing the very hyper-masculine notions he espouses in other songs. Man Like to Feel from 1965 is a notable case in which he lays out the masculine pretense as a delicate tissue of vainglorious illusions, maintained in part by women who derive benefits from manipulating that macho for their own ends “You could keep him under your heel, just let him feel how he want to feel.”
The diametric opposite of Sparrow’s hyper-masculine ‘brag-alypsos’ are those in which a strong female protagonist straightens out her man or gets the better of him in the narrative of the song. No Money, No Love is a curb-side exegesis on the role of finance in maintaining the trappings and even the foundations of romance. Ivy declares,
We cyah love without money.
We cyant make love on hungry belly.
the only one I am dreaming of.
You’re my turtle dove,
But no money;
Ivy delivers her manifesto in the midst of a physical altercation with Johnny right there on the pavement in town—one that might be just as scandalous to us today as in the mid-sixties—over their now-actualized breakup. Ivy’s pragmatic but painful rationale is one that mirrors that of many women in the war years some two decades earlier—one might be inclined to love a man, but not necessarily inclined to love starving alongside him, and one certainly has options.
In line with this completely opposing view of the post-war mopsy is the woman who refuses to starve is Sparrow’s 1964 composition, Don’t Go Joe.
Don’t Go, Joe
The Mighty Sparrow (Slinger Francisco), 1964
The Yankees came and went,
And broke the heart of my kid sister, Millicent.
The Yankee man came and went,
He broke the heart of my kid sister, Millicent.
I paid no heed to what she spoke of,
Not knowing she was so much in love.
When he tell she goodbye,
She kneel down and start to cry:
“Now, don’t go, Joe.
You wouldn’t know, Joe
But I love you so.
And when you’re gone,
I can’t go on without you,
So Joe, please Joe, don’t go.”
“He look like a decent guy,
Millie, doux doux,
Darling don’t cry.”
Wiping her tears away,
to what I have to say,
You know we had to part someday,
Because I got meh wife in the USA.”
But all the talk was in vain,
Millie started crying again:
Yuh know Yankee love dey sport
Every soldier got a girl in a different port.
You could imagine how I surprise
To see tears in de soldier eyes.
The soldier say, “Love don’t cry,”
So I know de girl gettin’ mamaguy.
Instead of lookin’ for cash,
She so stupid, she tellin’ de Yankee, “Hush.”
The girl have nothing to eat,
She belly big,
I does shame for she on de street.
Like love talk is all she know,
She aint talk,
Neither he aint talking ‘bout dough.
But when he gone is when Millie show me
a big fat wallet with plenty money.
She say, “He brain aint bigger than mine,
I was cryin’ but I pick he pocket same time!”
So Joe, please Joe, don’t go
“I’m gonna miss you baby!”
So Joe, please Joe, don’t go
“Don’t go baby!”
So Joe, please Joe, don’t go
“Come on back here, baby!”
Note the naturalized Americanisms throughout the song from Sparrow’s reference to his younger sister as his “kid sister”, his exclamations of “whoopsee-mama” after choruses, and the characterization of money as “dough.” Much has been noted, including in Calypso itself, about the American idioms, slangs and terms that seeped into Trinbagonian parlance during and immediately following the war years, even as foreign servicemen went home whistling calypsos and calling girls mopsies in the Trinidad way. Most famously, Sir Lancelot had made a study of the American effect on the homeland he knew now more from visits, commenting in the aforementioned song, Trinidad is Changing, that “every young creole shootin’ jive” and that if you politely asked a Trinidad mopsy to do a little waltzing (perhaps to an old Belasco paseo), she would say, “Buddy, get hep, you gotta swing!”
Suffice it to say that in Don’t Go Joe, Sparrow’s kid sister Millicent is “in a bad way” as they say. The sailor has to leave—back to his life and his wife in the U.S.A. But as it turns out, the sailor actually has feelings for sweet Millie, despite his marriage to another. All things/trysts/infidelities being equal, the desperate Millicent decides to recuperate some of her losses. She robs the sailor!
Of course, this can hardly pay for the upbringing of the child in her belly, no matter how many greenbacks are in the sailor’s newly liberated wallet. But Millicent’s manoeuvre leaves us wondering where she picked up those thieving skills, how long she has been using them, how often, and on whom. How much money might Millicent have in her biscuit tin? Again it can’t be enough to mind a child up to age 18 or 21.
Just like Jean and Dinah, 1964’s Don’t Go Joe marked an important event at Chaguaramas. The handover of the infamous naval base was now complete. In fact the two Calypsos, almost a decade apart are musical bookends on the Yankee draw-down in Trinidad and Tobago. But unlike the wrathful, and perhaps, impatient Jean and Dinah, Don’t Go Joe is a sympathetic scenario with an amusing twist at the end. Had Sparrow softened his tone just because the inspiration for Millicent was perhaps the sister of someone he knew and thus identified with? Was this change of heart about the unfortunate mopsy just the standard hypocrisy of the self-righteous, which holds people one doesn’t know to a different standard than oneself and one’s loved ones? Or was Sparrow trying on a different perspective for some other reason?
Indeed, Calypsonians are known to adopt differing, and even opposing views, not only across their careers as they evolve on particular issues but sometimes even from Carnival to Carnival, or A-side to B-side of their vinyl albums or singles. This does not result from some personal defect or duplicity, and is not the result of the multiple composers with whom Calypsonians are known to work—Sparrow being a famous example of a Calypsonian who did not write all his own songs. Rather, the apparent split personality of the Calypso is a historical feature of the Kaisonian’s craft and the Calypso artiste’s function in society.
The Calypsonian is a griot, a troubadour, presenting the events of the day, with the license to editorialize. The issues change and can be seen from multiple angles, especially when consulting the audience in call and response in the tent. We have an audience telling Sparrow, “Yuh Lie!” at the end of Congo Man (1964-65). This multifaceted perspective of the consensus-forged Calypsonian is why a seemingly misogynistic Atilla can turn around and not only play a female character in the spoken prologue to I Will String Along with You, but also present the female viewpoint throughout the song, chastising Lion for his caveman ways. It is also why Chalkdust can celebrate Trinidad’s créolité in his anthemic 1972 We is We, but then take an Afrocentric position on countless subsequent Calypsos. In fact, the lyrics of They Don’t See Africa (1984) read like a cautionary addendum to We is We, in which celebrants of our ethnic mélange should remember that Africa is a chief ingredient in the melting pot cook-up, not just some generic gravy on top of a European or Asian foundation.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that Sparrow would switch polarities to approach Millicent with a completely diametric narrative and emotional stance to that with which he does Jean, Dorothy and Dinah. And if Jean, Dorothy and Dinah deserve to be exploited by agents at home because they had set themselves up to be exploited by agents from abroad, but Millicent deserves our sympathy and she ought to do what she can to balance the scales in her final transaction with Joe, then it would seem that Calypso presents us not with the discrete abstractions of an issue but the paradoxes of a narrative. This is not out of the ordinary because Calypso has always operated more like an ongoing national discourse, stitched through with the impulses, insights and wit of a people than as a platform for the creation of singular, self-enclosed masterworks. Most Calypsonians are thus facilitators of the great discourse; not so much its leaders. In its first two hundred years Calypso has concerned itself not so much with grandeur or greatness as with balancing the poetic and the prosaic, and few have approached its precarious trapeze more ably than the Mighty Sparrow...like a bird perching on a buzzing high tension wire before flitting off to the next topic and the next perspective.
- Charan, Richard. “An American Soldier’s Gift to Us” in Daily Express, April 10th 2016.
- Kelshall, Gaylord. The U-Boat War in the Caribbean. Naval Institute Press, 1994.
- Kelshall, Gaylord in Trinidad and Tobago WWII Diaries (film): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RT6ZIo-gETM
- MightySparrow.com: http://www.mightysparrow.com
- National Carnival Commission of Trinidad and Tobago: http://www.ncctt.org/50years/index.php/108-calypso-music/17885-the-mighty-sparrow
- Neptune, Harvey R. Caliban and the Yankees: Trinidad and the United States Occupation. University of North Carolina, 2007.
- Regis, Louis. The Political Calypso. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999.
- Rohlehr, Gordon. Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad. San Juan, Trinidad: Lexicon, 1990.
- Rafique Shah, “Sparrow Through the Eyes of Indo-Trinidadians” (accessed, April 2016)
- Keith Warner. Kaiso: The Trinidad Calypso: A Study of the Calypso as Oral Literature. Washington, D.C: Three Continents Press, 1985.
- Or the Destroyers for Bases Agreement as the Americans called it.
- See Gaylord Kelshall, Trinidad and Tobago WWII Diaries.
- See Chapter Three of Harvey Neptune, Caliban and the Yankees, 2007.
- See Chapter Fifteen of Eric Williams, History of the People of Trinidad and Tobago, Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1942. While this renowned publication is morbidly thin on the analysis of the petroleum industry and its workers (and trade unions) in the sociopolitical and economic development of Trinidad & Tobago, it’s Chapter Fifteen provides a useful gloss of the events of the 1930s. For an alternate view of the 1930s and the socioeconomic effects of the Americans in the following decade, see Neptune, Caliban and the Yankees.
- See Chapter Six of Neptune, Caliban and the Yankees.
- Neptune, Caliban and the Yankees, 182.
- Louis Regis, The Political Calypso (University Press of Florida, 1999), 4.
- See Rafique Shah, “Sparrow Through the Eyes of Indi-Trinidadians”
- See MightySparrow.com: http://www.mightysparrow.com
- E.g., see Keith Warner, Kaiso: The Trinidad calypso: A Study of the Calypso as Oral Literature (Washington , D.C: Three Continents Press, 1985), chapter "Male/Female Interplay in the Calypso."
Leave comment in the WST forum