Monday, September 27, 2010
Stone Cold Dead in the Market: Wilmouth Houdini- Decca Presents... Calypsos (1939); The Calypso Carnival (?)
Harking back to the Calypso styles discussed in a previous post on Van Dyke Parks' Discovering America, I bring you this gorgeous and strange selection of scrumptious Calypsos, ripped from a booklet of 78s and courtesy of the fine fellow behind Zorch's Inner Sanctum. This is his gospel to spread, really, so go pay him a visit, but I just had to share it with you all in case you might have missed it.
I sometimes like Calypsos better in theory than in practice, but perhaps that's only because you encounter so much de-fanged, post-Belafonte, near-novelty ramifications of the genre. Yet at it's purest, it has a fascinating combination of regional storytelling, social commentary, crime-and-sex balladeering, and outlandish posturing that one might find in jazz, blues, rockabilly, country, various other folk and ethnic styles, and some of the more socially-conscious reggae, soul, and hip-hop. (Let me stop right here and backtrack to say that I have nothing but love for Mr. Harry Belafonte.) Another fascinating, recurring theme in classic Calypso is the presence of American GIs in Tobago and Trinidad, and a highly critical attitude towards the various effects this had on their lives.
These six recordings by Wilmouth Houdini epitomize this spirit of lurid, entertaining, and socially relevant Calypsos. The best of the bunch is "He Had It Coming," a murder ballad (based on a recent, at least at the time, event) told from the point of view of a murderous wife, who strikes her husband down with a skillet after he gets drunk and roughs her up. "I killed nobody but me husband," she reasons. (Hit up Zorch's spot for more info about these recordings, as he's a responsible archivist, with information and research that is actual.)
Also included are two recordings of Houdini's songs by other artists: the aforementioned "He Had It Coming," this time called "Stone Cold Dead in the Market" and sung by Ella Fitzgerald, and another by The Three Flames. Wonderful stuff.
Once you've done that, run over there and grab this incredible treasure:
The Calypso Carnival is a raw and beautiful collection of absolutely classic songs and themes. The singers have a way of cutting straight to the bone, and all the songs are impressively hardscrabble and deeply felt. One of my favorites here is "I'm a Better Woman Than You," an absolutely ferocious street battle between two hard female singers about who is the more appealing and desirable female. "When I walk down the avenue, I get more fellows than you..." "I am a better woman than you, I got better notions than you..." They get pretty fucking close to pulling each others' hair, sonically speaking-- it's amazing. Another highlight is "Mama, Looka Boo Boo (Boo Boo Man)" one of those classic tracks where a fellow laments his own personal ugliness. Also included are some less raucous selections, with movingly lovely female vocals. This one is a winner. Go over there and get it, fellows.