SHADOW: The ‘William Blake’ of Calypso

by Bukka Rennie

As delivered at the Celebration of the Life of Winston "Shadow" Bailey on October 30, 2018

Provided by, and published with, the expressed permission of: the Author

© 2018 -  All Rights Reserved.

Shadow - Winston Bailey

(May – 1999)

William Blake a British philosopher- a poet who lived in the period 1757-1827 wrote the following words in one of his poems: “O see a world in a grain of sand/ And heaven in a wild flower/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ And eternity in an hour..." Listen now to Shadow- Winston Bailey, in his calypso "Evolution": "I am locked in a dungeon/in the middle of evolution/ can't find the key/ to escape destiny..."

Here's Blake again: "A robin redbreast in a cage/ Puts all heaven in a rage/ A dog starved at his master's gate/ Predicts the ruin of the State/ The lamb misused breeds public strife/ And yet forgives the butcher's knife... And listen again to Shadow: "Everything is in harmony/ Until the farmer get hungry.../ The farmer comes searching the nest/ The cock bawl out loud in protest/ Cook curry ochro!..."

If you make the connection between those quotes, the revelation comes. Nature and time and space and all social activity are directly linked, integrated and interrelated. As Blake once wrote: “The sun rises and humanity rejoices and moves, the sun sets and humanity stops and sleeps.” Similarly Shadow would sing in his "My Belief": " I believe in the stars and the dark night/ I believe in the sun and the daylight/ I believe in the little children/ I believe in Life and its problems..."

I have always maintained that, like William Blake, Shadow in his very simplicity and apparent childlike lyrics remains a most complex artist.

Unlike our numerous social commentators who comment on particular and specific events and issues of a political or socio-economic nature, Shadow contemplates natural phenomena and man's relations to the universe. It explains why his approach to most topics: poverty, pressure, friendship, honesty, jealousy, survival, truth, human rights etc, all of which are titles of actual Shadow calypsoes, signify that tendency of all philosophers including Shadow to draw concrete lessons from abstract treatment of subject matter.

"Poverty is Hell" - performed by Shadow

William Blake was no different in his simplicity, poetic abstractions and glorifying of nature. With such an approach both Blake and Shadow force us beyond the ordinariness of daily existence to contemplate the meaning of Life itself, our purpose on Earth, the essence of death and its consequences, the juxtaposing of nature's opposites and how we stand in relation to the rest of the universe; the stars, the moon, the sun, the animals, trees and the birds, etc.

Blake, over the past centuries, came to be well known for the following poems: "Tiger, Tiger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night..." and "Little Lamb who made thee?/ Dost thou know who made thee?..." And moreso for the ending of the "Tiger" poem where he questions: "What immortal hand or eye/ Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?/ Did he who made the Lamb make thee?..."

Likewise Shadow's philosophical questions and statements as evidenced in "What is Life?", "I Believe", "Everybody is Somebody", "One Love", etc. shall in time guarantee the immortality of his work. Shadow symbolically says in song: “you only telling me what to do, telling me where to go, but the knowledge I want to get, is how to escape Mr. Death…” (Toe Jam?)

Besides their great ability to simplify abstract thought and to seek truth out of the clashing of opposites eg, "the ladder of success is written in distress", both Blake and Shadow also hold in common a sense of alienation from official society. Blake grew up in 18th century England when the simple pastoral life of the countryside was giving way to the overcrowded towns and the exploitation of child-labour that was deemed a commercial necessity in the midst of the widespread Industrial Revolution. At that time there seemed to be little value placed on human existence.

Blake rejected such development and created a body of poetic symbolism to make the meaning of his imagery more powerful. That also allowed him to protect himself from censorship in a time when one could be executed for sedition against Church or State, from which he, Blake, barely escaped on one occasion. Blake's alienation was reflected in his rejection then of all social convention. To him churches or organised religion were "mills of Satan" in which "Satan was called God and compelled man to serve him in abject submission." This God Blake called "Urizen" and he described him as "satanic holiness, revengeful, and a brooding, dark power." Sounds familiar. That is exactly what Farrel is to Shadow. Blake’s “Urizen” and Shadow’s “Farrel” are identical as spiritual, creative force that illuminates them for the world to see.

"Pay The Devil" - performed by Shadow

Shadow emerges out of the pastoral settings and closeness to nature of Les Coteaux, Tobago, to confront the madness of an urban existence that signifies him as "alien".

He comes in the midst of a quest, a demand, and an imperative of political Independence, to transform society unto an industrial basis as a platform to facilitate true development, but this "de-colonisation" process is bogged down by Euro-centric parameters that rejects the genuine self-determination of a people as it rejects everything about Shadow's persona: his blackness, his ethnicity (Tobagonian-ness), and most of all his artistic expressions which are described as "growls and groans and animal-like noises." Despite acclaim by the masses, official society kept seeing Shadow as a clown and his lyrics as childish, crass foolishness, and his singing was described as "baying", in other words, inhuman. Simply put; Shadow's raucousness disturbed the smooth urbane existence of the Port-of-Spain brown-skin middle-class creoles.

"Columbus Lie" - performed by Shadow

But the fact is that Shadow emerged after 1970, in the wake of a groundswell of "black consciousness" that clearly establishes that the Eurocentric creole-culture, the culture of official society, could no longer accommodate or embrace the divergences of all who settled here by force or choice and now wished to proclaim their own ways of seeing and doing. Shadow philosophically spearheads this groundswell, he becomes both the medium and the message as he confronts official society and attacks the Calypso Monarchy.

To accomplish this, Shadow summons inspiration and creative strength, not from "Heaven" as the ethics of this Western, Greco-Roman-Christian world would want to suggest, but from "Hell", in order to overcome and break the musical monarchy ("The Threat").

However the inspiration is not immediate in coming so he considers going back to Tobago to plant peas, when "Farrel suddenly turns up. Victory comes as a result and it is then that we are told that this new "King" shall be a most exacting and revengeful one ("King from Hell"). It is the psychology of intense alienation that produces the brooding revenge of both "Blake’s Urizen" and "Shadow’s Farrel".

In Shadow's Hell he is comfortable. It is a state of mind that allows no limits to creative power. Farrel is the psychological manifestation of this. Farrel is what Winston is not. There is a constant struggle between Farrel and Winston, a struggle of personalities, a struggle between two worlds.

Winston is the tendency of compromise and surrender. Winston has been beaten down by society. Winston is the laid back, quiet, unassuming personality, while Farrel is uncompromising and cannot be accommodated. When Farrel and Winston combine you get "Shadow", a reflection of myth and reality, a new sense of power. Logically then the main symbols of Shadow as an artist have always been "death", "hell" and "children".

"Children" represent the new birth, the new consciousness and thrust against the old order and arrangement, while "death" and "hell", as sources of inspiration and strength, represent the space and time and action of social transformation.

Anyone can trace Shadow's use of these symbolic themes in all his calypsoes and show how he expands the symbols as he goes along to incorporate new imagery and new meaning. In short, Shadow turns all the norms upside down and around.

He was the first calypsonian who in dealing with man/woman and gender relationships in song put the sexes on equal footing and in fact in most instances placed women in control of the situations and in a position to determine outcome especially where their bodies and their sexuality are concerned.

"Ah Come Out To Play" - performed by Shadow

That is quite obvious in "I Come Out to Play", "Rap to Me", "Country Boy", "Shift Yuh Carcass", etc. and that in itself was revolutionary when one considers what obtained previously. Moreover, Shadow’s revolution was not only in terms of content but also in terms of form, for in searching for the best means through which to express his novel ideas, he found that it required a whole new approach to calypso, and in so doing ended up freeing calypso from the limitations of its traditional form and structure for all the others like Shorty to follow from 1975 onwards.

That in fact has been Shadow’s greatest contribution, he opened up the Art form, and it is why he is so revered by the present day Rapso exponents like Ataklan.

Describing him as the William Blake of Calypso was an attempt to get people to delve deeper into the man's work, the man's reasoning and into the stirrings of his soul.

Shadow - Winston Bailey

One person felt that the analogy to Blake was far-fetched. Why is the analogy to Blake and Blake's England in the throes of early Industrialisation being viewed as far-fetched? Rejection and alienation and violence to the human spirit, violence to creative intelligence, violence to the essence of humanity, is the connecting link.

"Whap Cocoyea" - performed by Shadow

Both Shadow and Blake experienced rejection and, in turn, rejected the basic underpinnings of Euro-centric society. Blake rejected the God of organised religion in his time. So too Shadow was inspired by "Farrel" since there is really no conception in old African Religions of a Devil and all Gods are ascribed human attributes that are both "good" and "bad".

"Whap Cocoyea" - performed by Desperadoes Steel Orchestra

Finally, Blake in his time and Shadow, now, have created in their art very similar symbols of life and death, and of man's relation to nature in attempt to express their feelings, their reasoning and their truth. And they both did so with a childlike innocence that is not to be construed as childishness.

I have no doubt in my mind about the close affinity of these two in their thought patterns and approach to subject matter. This is rather strange for two men from different epochs, who could never have met but only share the same initials: “WB”. Listen to both of them:

I asked a thief to steal me a peach;
He turned up his eyes.
I asked a lady to lie her down;
Holy and meek she cries.
As soon as I went
An Angel came. He winked at the thief
And smiled at the dame
And without one word said
Had a peach from the tree
And still as a maid
Enjoyed the lady.

What is wrong with dis world
Like it gone outa control
Lunatics in politics
Like they all come out for kicks.
They legalise alcohol
And sell it to Rufus
After which he had ball
And started to cuss
A policeman called Spinks
Came up and arrest him
First he paid for the drinks
And now he paying fuh drinking.


Do you see the common approach? Shadow came from Les Coteaux with these stirrings in his soul, confident, according to Leroy Clarke, in his own obeah and "jumbies" swirling around him. It is all about native sensibility and wit as the only basis from which to see and act differently. One calypsonian commentator said: “Nobody could compose like Shadow because nobody thinks like Shadow.” That reminds me of what he said to me during our last discussion when I went to his Mt. Hope home to discuss the Liner Notes to the special album that was launched in Europe. I said to him: “there is a certain musical arranger who claims that he made you.” Shadow laughed and said: “But he stupid, he shoulda make more.”

Fare thee well, Winston McGarland Bailey. Walk good, my brethren, and thanks for being YOU!  

Bukka Rennie
About the Author:
Activist, historian, columnist and writer, widower and the father of three, Bukka Rennie left Trinidad and Tobago in 1967 to pursue studies in History and Political Science at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal, Canada.

After two years at Sir George he was jailed and then expelled along with forty-one other Black Caribbean students and forty-nine White Canadian students after involvement in political action against racism at that institution. He has refused since then to attend any university, including The University of the West Indies, even after the option to transfer credits was offered, and accepted by others.

He co-founded and edited UHURU, a Montreal Black community-based newspaper. Bukka returned to Trinidad and Tobago in November 1970 and co-founded and led the New Beginning Movement (NBM) that published the newspaper New Beginning, which he edited until its cessation in 1978. From 1978 to 1983 he edited the OWTU (Oilfields Workers Trade Union) organ, Vanguard. From then on he has managed a number of family-oriented businesses while working as a freelance columnist with both the Trinidad Express and the Trinidad Guardian newspapers, and between 2001 and 2007 as personal advisor to the Ministry of Community Development, Culture and Gender Affairs. Throughout the years, he has continued to write.

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