Thursday, June 30, 2011

Up in the Old Hotel and Other Stories by Joseph Mitchell (Vintage Books 1992)

"At Mardi Gras, which falls on the two days before Lent, the big stores and companies in Port-of-Spain give prizes of rum and money to the Calypsonian who improvises the best song about their merchandise. In 1916, with the African Millionaires in back of me, I entered the advertising competitions and won seven in one day, singing extemporaneously against men like Senior Inventor and the Lord Executor. I collected the big prize from the Angostura Bitters people and the big prize from the Royal Extra Stout brewery people, and all like that. In those competitions you have to improvise a song on the spur of the moment, and it has to be in perfect time with the band. You must be inspired to do so.

"That night, in a tent, I had a war with some old Calypsonians. A tent is a bamboo shack with a palm roof. The Calypsonians sing in them during carnival and charge admission. A war is where three Calypsonians stand up on the platform in a tent and improvise in verse. One man begins in verse, telling about ugly faces and impure morals of the other two. Then the next man picks up the song and proceeds with it. On and on it goes. If you falter when it comes your turn, you don't dare call yourself a Calypsonian. Most war songs are made up of insults. You give out your insults, and then the next man insults you. The man who gives out the biggest insults is the winner. I was so insulting in my first war the other men congratulated me. Since then I maintain my prestige and integrity as Houdini the Calypsonian. I got a brain that ticks like a clock. I can sing at any moment on any matter. If you say to me, 'Sing a song about that gentleman over there,' I swallow once and do so."

From 'Houdini's Picnic' (1939)

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