I saw on FaceBook that today is the 31st anniversary of the death of the legendary Bob Marley, the musical genius who was probably more responsible than any other individual for the popularization worldwide of reggae music. I've often thought of reggae as an acquired taste for many of us who were already grown up when the genre took shape in the late 1960s and 1970s. The musical emphasis on the counter-beat moves syncopation to a new and initially unfamiliar level to those of us who grew up on 4/4 time and 3/4 time standard rhythms, not unlike the effect of the really far-out jazz of a decade or so earlier of Charlie Parker and Theolonious Monk and Dave Brubeck.
And that reggae revolution all but erased the older and more familiar calypso genre from the mainstream of popular music, a really significant erasure if you recall that for a few years in the mid-50s calypso was the most prominent form of pop in a craze that was spearheaded by the phenomenon of Harry Belafonte, one of the first black American musical artists whose crossover appeal far past the restricted areas of blues and jazz presaged in many ways the social upheavals that were to come in the Civil Rights era. Belafonte was a singer's singer, an artist who never limited the material he performed to a single genre and who started his professional career as a Greenwich Village folksinger. His Calypso album of 1956 on RCA Records is a landmark in American musical history as the first recording certified to have sold more than a million copies, and nearly every song on the record has become a pop standard - "Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)," "Jamaica Farewell," and "Will His Love Be Like His Rum?" to cite three. The album gave a boost to the careers of both the Caribbean originals from whom Belafonte learned the songs and to American folk groups like The Tarriers and The Weavers who had already included Jamaican and Bahamian songs in their repertoires.
Belafonte was born in New York City of Jamaican parents, and it was from them and from his trips to the island to visit relatives that Harry B first heard the music. The irony is, though, that to scholars what Harry was hearing and singing was not actually calypso music at all, which in its narrowest academic definition can only be from Trinidad and Tobago, whereas similar music from Jamaica must be called mento. So fine a distinction never reached the consciousness of the executives at Victor or the American population at large, and "calypso" came to be the preferred term for all Afro-Caribbean music before reggae.
What we call calypso today was markedly different from reggae in more than rhythm. Calypso music was derived largely from the work songs of black sailors and stevedores and not from the political sensibilities of individual writers as much of reggae is. Even the great calypso composers like Lords Kitchener, Invader, and Intruder were generally basing their compositions on older songs from the docks and fields. And the overwhelming popularity of the genre was such that songs that had originally been 4/4 folk songs were re-cast in the 6/8 calypso rhythm, songs like "Bay of Mexico" for example - or "Pay Me My Money Down."
However old "Pay Me My Money Down" may be, it was first "collected" for publication from dock workers in the Georgia Sea Islands in 1942 by Lydia Parrish, but it must have emigrated to the Caribbean well before that because it was being performed on radio by Lord Kitchener by 1946. Kitchener's lyrics differ somewhat from those published by Parrish, but the basic storyline of a somewhat comical and ill-fated adventure at sea of a roguish working stiff is common to both.
My favorite version of "Pay Me" currently available is the solo effort from 2008 by Bob Shane, the last man standing of the original Kingston Trio, a group whose repertoire in its earliest days and its very name evolved from the '50s calypso craze:
This is classic calypso rhythm and instrumentation, at least as those came into mainstream American pop. Belafonte's recordings often also included steel drums and brass instruments, but the "folk" nature of the genre is on display here more effectively.
Fifty years before that recording, Shane's Kingston Trio was rehearsing the number and testing it out on audiences at San Francisco's Purple Onion nightclub:
A more refined version of the song by the Trio appeared on the CD release of the group's Stereo Concert album, but I prefer the wild energy of this early cut.
The song resurfaced in pop music with Bruce Springsteen's 2006 album and tour that the Boss called "The Seeger Sessions" because the repertoire consisted of largely re-imagined American folk tunes that had been recorded fifty years early by Seeger, or rather in most cases by Seeger's Weavers. While YouTube includes a number of uploads of Springsteen's live version from the tour, I prefer this folkier promo video from 2005:
Springsteen's comments after the song are worth a listen as well - I find his extolling of acoustic instruments somehow amusing. But this cut, which the Boss used to open many of the shows, shows I think Springsteen at his best with this folk material. I thought that the Seeger experiment was a mixed bag: Bruce's attempts at Anglo-American songs fell flat for me, but the spirituals and other African-American songs like this succeeded. Love that touch of zydeco as well.
More recently - a couple of weeks ago, in fact - an Irish folk supergroup consisting of contemporary singers Paul Kelly, Mick Hanly, Eleanor Shanley, Séamus Begley and Frankie Lane and calling themselves "Folk The Recession" posted this Springsteen-influenced version on YouTube:
And continuing with the European flavor - Sweden's young soloist Alexandra Jardvall gets her audience singing along in 2010:
I wish that folks would leave Bruce's off-tempo syncopation to Bruce alone - but I can't complain too much because I have a weakness for throaty alto voices like Jardvall's.
You can trundle around YouTube and find fifty more people channeling Springsteen, and that's fine. As a closer here, though, I thought it would be interesting and fun to include the pop-song hit "Cindy, Oh Cindy" by Vince Martin - the melody will be instantly recognizable as a rewritten version of "Pay Me":
The group backing Martin is none other than The Tarriers, one of the few pre-KT groups to have an actual acoustic folk hit, the calypso "Marianne."
"Pay Me My Money Down" is a two-chord song and consequently is one of the first songs that a number of my guitar playing friends ever learned (mine was "Good News). In folk music, such simplicity is a virtue, and I think that may be what Bruce Springsteen is trying to get at in his comments after his performance of the song in the video above. Elaborate arrangements are what people quite rightly pay to see and hear - but what keeps a song alive is its sing-ability, and "Pay Me My Money Down" certainly has that.
Addendum - May 12, 2012
I'm delighted to have the comment below from "Ranzo" (fine sea chantey name that is), who is Hulton Clint. Hulton has created a YouTube channel dedicated to his renditions of and comments on "chanteys of the seven seas," and his total video view are just under 2 million. Hulton has himself an extended discussion of the nature and history of "Pay Me" on his YouTube upload of the original version of the song HERE, and I'm delighted to present his video below. Thanks, Hulton!
And Further - May 22, 2012
I had intended to include this version of "Hey Li Lee Li Lee" in the article above because it is essentially the same song as "Pay Me." This is a trademark Limeliters number from 1961, featuring a their typically slightly naughty lyric and excellent audience participation: