"You think you know a story," intones the voice of Jonathan Rhys Meyers as Henry VIII over the opening credits of Showtime's The Tudors television series, "but you only know how it ends. To get to the heart of the story, you have to go back to the beginning." As far as much of the mainstream pop audience in the U.S. (at least outside of New York City) was concerned in the 1950s, calypso music began with the landmark recordings of Harry Belafonte and pretty much ended there as well, with minor exceptions like Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders' "Marianne" and The Tarriers' "Everybody Loves Saturday Night." Of course, most all of the pop-folk groups of the 1950s and 60s - the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, The Brothers Four, The Limeliters, The Chad Mitchell Trio, the large ensembles like The New Christy Minstrels and The Serendipity Singers - also included calypso numbers in their repertoires in what was a kind of extended afterthought to the fad or craze centered around Belafonte. That they did so was an homage not only to Harry B but also to The Weavers of the late 1940s, who were at one and the same time the first commercial folk group and an extension of the leftist People's Songs outfit of earlier in the same decade.
The roots of calypso's popularity in the U.S. go back rather earlier than Belafonte and are entwined to a degree with the history of People's Songs. While Trinidad's Lionel Belasco was recording calypso numbers as early as 1914, much of the credit for bringing the music to the U.S.* has to go to Lancelot Victor Pinard (1903-2001), better known by his stage name of Sir Lancelot. Pinard was the well-educated son of a well-to-do Trinidadian family, the very opposite of the banana-slinging dockworker that became a kind of calypso cliché. After a private school education in the islands, Pinard went to New York in the early 1920s to study medicine but was drawn into music by seeing performances of African American singing stars Roland Hayes and later Paul Robeson. Pinard's early performances were of almost exclusively classical music, though gradually over the next decade he began to introduce the calypso songs of his homeland as novelty pieces in his repertoire. "This orchestra leader from Trinidad who had a nice band in New York heard one of my concerts and said, 'Would you condescend to record a couple of calypsos for me?' " Pinard remembered. "This is the music of my country," he replied. "I'd be proud to do it." Eventually the novelty songs became more popular with his audiences than the serious ones, and in 1940 Pinard adopted his stage name and did calypso full time - when he wasn't acting on Broadway and in films.
It was during this period and later in the postwar 1940s, when Pinard and other calypso singers were all the rage in NYC if largely unknown outside it, that Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax of People's Songs began to host a series of concerts in Carnegie Hall that they called "The Midnight Specials," including one called "Midnight Calypso." The political underpinning of the concerts was the same one that has illuminated most of Seeger's musical career - that folk music was the music of the common people, possessing a kind of virtue because of that fact, and that the reformation of the world was going to begin with people everywhere embracing the music of their own cultures and everyone else's as well. Pinard was drawn to this vision and participated in several Seeger-initiated concerts that had grown out of Midnight Calypso. These shows were hugely popular in New York and solidified Pinard's position as one of the leading nightclub acts of the city, right up to the time he was seen around 1949 by an ambitious young singer and actor named Harry Belafonte, whose repertoire and musical approach he has always acknowledged to have been strongly influenced by Pinard.
But Pinard's rather aristocratic family back in Trinidad had a position to maintain and were less than thrilled by his double career switch, first from medicine to music and then from serious music to vulgar. "They have a whole British style down there and figured this is the music of the lower classes," Pinard recalled. "Gentlemen didn't sing calypsos at that time. I was the first, and when I went back . . . my friends did not receive me." Nor did his family, which according to several sources all but disowned him, despite the tuxedoed dignity with which Pinard invariably performed in the posh music clubs of 40s New York. It was this rejection that gave Pinard the idea for the chorus of "Shame and Scandal," which made its first appearance with Pinard performing it as "Fort Holland Calypso Song" in the 1943 horror classic I Walked With A Zombie:
In the 50s, Pinard expanded his Zombie song into a full-blown calypso number with a plot more familiar to modern fans, including it on his Trinidad Is Changing album (along with soon-to-become-standards "Marianne," "Matilda," "Sweet Like A Honeybee," and "Oken Karenge"). Embedding is disabled for the video of that version, but it can be heard HERE.
Pinard's now-complete and humorous song was re-written slightly by "Lord Melody" (Fitzroy Alexander) around 1960 in what would become the template for the many version that followed:
Though Burl Ives had recorded a version in the late 1940s, it was Lord Melody's arrangement that inspired this 1964 take by the Kingston Trio, which of course had started its career seven years before as a calypso group:
Trini Lopez, whose proto-Latin-folk-rock impact is all but forgotten today, was the next to pick up Pinard's creation - about 1965:
Also in 1965, the recording in Portugese and in Brazilian jazz style by the Cords anticipates the crossover into ska and reggae about to come...
...which it does here, with this version by Shawn Elliott's band that features ska master Peter Tosh on lead vocals and reggae master Bob Marley singing backup:
The song has remained an international favorite. A kind of French reggae was waxed by Sascha Distel:
Harry und Ronny "Die Schande unserer Familie" - 1965 from Germany:
Britain's Tomcats singing in Spanish:
A French instrumental semi-ska arrangement - now there's a category for you - by Franck Pourcel:
There is a goodly number of interesting, scholarly, and entertaining sites across the web that deal with the calypso phenomenon, and it was fascinating to see how few of them mentioned Belafonte and how many wrote about '30s NYC stars like Roaring Lion, Attila the Hun, and Sir Lancelot. What was also moving was the number of warm personal recollections of Lancelot Pinard by fans who sought him out toward the end of his very long life. Even in his 90s, Pinard would receive uninvited guests in his Anaheim, California home, apologize for the fact that his recordings were long out of print (they did not come out on CD until after his 2001 death), and offer a personal photo to those good enough to remember him. The music world owes a good deal of remembrance to Lancelot Pinard, and when you think of the contributions through the decades of his acolytes direct and indirect like Belafonte, Irving Burgie, Bob Marley and more, it is hard not to think of his near-anonymity in death as just another garden variety injustice of memory perpetrated by an industry whose leading lights today know not where they came from and thus do not know who they are. Given the state of popular music in America today, this just cannot be a surprise.
*The popularity of calypso and other Caribbean music in the UK is quite another story, with major figures like Edric Connor and Lord Kitchener.