Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Friday, April 1, 2016

Trinidadian Smut


The word smut generally carries nasty associations. Apart from referring to pornography in a belittling tone, it denotes filthy ruined grain. Yet in the sunny Caribbean, in Trinidad and Tobago at any rate, smut refers to a genre of calypso (and some soca) which, like the hokum songs of the blues, celebrates sexuality in a cheerful, good-humored, even innocent way. Calypso, like many blues, country music, and reggae songs foregrounds the lyrics and, while calypso songs may comment on politics, food prices, or cricket, they often portray the relations of men and women with clever and high-spirited double entendre. Far from the love-longing so prominent in much love poetry from antiquity to the present and from China to southern France, these songs celebrate physicality with joy and wit.

In the oeuvre of the Mighty Sparrow one finds the classic “Big Bamboo,” [1] a sort of phallic paean enriched with gleeful nonsense syllables, richly humorous symbolic manipulation, and the peculiar inclusion of the line “working for the Yankee dollar,” presumably as a counterpoised reality principle balancing the deeply satisfying bamboo of the title. Among the songs mentioning “cock” in the title are Sparrow’s “More Cock” and “Benwood Dick,” Lord Raburn’s “Cock and Pull It,” and Crazy’s “One Foot Cock.”

Women’s genitals, too, receive praise in "Bag ah Sugar Down Dey," “Saltfish,” and “When It Bald, It Better.” In the Duke of Iron’s tune “Miss Constance” the eponymous lady boasts, “I may be small, and yet/I can take on any runner when the track gets wet." The actual suffering of poverty is temporarily obscured when Sparrow sings “Sell the Pussy,” urging his girlfriend to the street to earn money for food. The slang usage of pussy enables a list of other songs as well: Sparrow’s “Ah Fraid Pussy Bite Me,” Lord Kitchener’s “My Pussin,” Calypso Rose’s “My Little Pussy,” Lord Blakie’s “Hold the Pussy,” and Lord Brynner’s “Roslyn Pussy” among them. Calypso also contributes to the widespread motif of songs which play with the suggestive possibilities of describing a tattooed lady [2] with the Sparrow’s relentlessly physical song about the woman who has his image on her backside: “She Sits on Me.” The hazards of intimacy result in Lloyd Simmons warning about the problem of “Hair in Your Teeth.”

Though a good number of smut songs are quite straightforward, depending only on the affective dynamo of sexuality to insure their energy, the finest tunes are those in which the lyrics are developed with ingenuity and originality. Among these I would count Lord Kitchener’s “Muriel and de Bug” [3] which recounts how the bug must have been “very intelligent to find that area” while never hinting at the actual sensations associated with bedbugs. Similarly George Symonette’s “Don’t Touch Me Tomato” [4] sketches a market lady altogether in control of her inventory and irritated at the customer “hard as a coconut” who keeps poking and squeezing without being able to make up his mind. Lord Melody and Sir Lancelot’s “Shame and Scandal in the Family” ignores any possible suffering that might be associated with real world extra-marital philandering with its deftly turned plot [5] and effective punch line. The amused listener accepts as natural the assumption that everyone is likely to be sleeping around. Even mortality is lightly treated in Lord Intruder’s “Jumbie Jamborie” [6] in which the speaker’s principal fear at witnessing the rising of the dead is a certain amorous deceased female. Intruder manages to include lines commenting on such current topics as Brigitte Bardot and the threat of nuclear holocaust.

But the specter of the undead and the threat of Armageddon cannot alter the buoyant tone of the music, its infectious danceable rhythms, and its humorous, self-mocking jocularity. The relations between the sexes may at times be rocky and all sorts of misery can intrude on human lives, but there will always be a party beckoning at which all is played for laughs. Just as tragedy by embodying true horror in beautifully metrical lines worked out with every sort of poetic device can enable people to continue living, so in comedy everything becomes a well-turned jest and the rhyme guarantees that no one is ever really hurt, and Buster Keaton and the Roadrunner and Inspector Clouseau will reenter the fray in spite of having repeatedly made fools of themselves.

And they will hardly be deterred by tropical moralists such as the author of an article titled “Soca Music and Moral Decadence” [7] to whom “immorality and public sexual vulgarity have surpassed the nadir of their bottomless pit.” While “back in the day” “’smut’ in Calypso was respectful of and to women” and featured “a serious, message-oriented story-line.” As an example of the more wholesome fare popular a generation ago, the writer cites the Mighty Sparrow’s “Mae Mae,” a song in which the persona meets a “girl” and they immediately proceed to sexual activity. After a heated encounter, “Sparrow humbly and respectfully suggests that Mae Mae should take the remainder of the rum and give it to her ‘man’ when she got home.” This, to the critic of contemporary immorality, is an example of “civilized, respectful, moralized and enjoyable ‘smut.’” To this Caribbean Cato the woman in Lord Kitchener’s “Sugar Bum Bum” is treated “with utmost respect and human dignity.” [8]

If even its critics are reluctant to condemn Trinidadian smut, its fans are nothing less than fervent in its support, feeling, perhaps, intuitively, that to dance to these tunes is to dance to the rhythms of life. Quite willing to leave to other genres the mysteries, tangles, suffering and ambiguity of male-female relations, the fan of this bright and bouncing music revels for a time in an Edenic innocence where one may dance with delight, glorying in the fundamental facts of human biology.




1. See Klaus de Albuquerque, “ In Search of the Big Bamboo,” Transition No. 77 (1998), pp. 48-57 for a survey of the myth of the “big bamboo” said to be possessed by those of African ancestry.

2. Such songs include Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” sung by Groucho Marx in At the Circus as well as the “The Tattooed Lady” popularized by the Kingston Trio. It sounds like a music hall song (even without the singers’ use of comic English accents), but this “Tattooed Lady” seems to have folk origins in Arkansas or Missouri though it has been collected from British sailors as well. (Might it have been a vaudeville or medicine show number?)

3. Irwin Chusid, the veteran collector and broadcaster of smut calypso as well as other genres of music, used Muriel’s Treasure as the title for one of his shows on WFMU. The “Bedbug Song” was also recorded by the Mighty Panther, Lord Invader, and others.

4. Covered not only by Calypso Mama but also by Josephine Baker.

5. Bested, perhaps, only by Latham and Jaffe’s novelty tune “I’m My Own Grandpa.”

6. Often called “Zombie Jamboree” or “Back to Back and Belly to Belly,” the song was covered by many artists, notably by Harry Belafonte and by the Kingston Trio. The song was originally worked out in an improvisatory performance.

7. By university lecturer Kwame Nantambu in the March 25, 2008 Trinidad and Tobago News Blog at http://www.trinidadandtobagonews.com/blog/?p=477.

8. Indeed this professor is far from alone in his indulgent attitude toward what might seem to some sexist or unseemly. The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian for February 28, 2014 reports another scholar, this time described as a feminist, celebrating “the social value of Sparrow’s oeuvre.” As a personal testament, she recalls the liberating effect of Sparrow’s performance of “raunchy” songs when he performed at her high school. Another unlikely fan is the Nation of Islam’s Minister Louis Farrakhan, once a calypsonian with the sobriquet The Charmer, who not long ago praised the ingenuity of rap poetry, comparing it to calypso, and proceeded to begin improvising with a broad grin supported by the inherent joie de vivre of the genre.

No comments:

Post a Comment