For Calypso History Month, Sunday Newsday reflects on the Mighty Sparrow’s (Slinger Francisco) first calypso hit, and how he came to compose the song that launched his career.
THE story of Jean and Dinah, also known as Yankee Gone, the first hit calypso by Mighty Sparrow, is a social commentary on life in Trinidad in the post-World War II era in more ways than one.
The narrative reflects the large-scale prostitution that was supported by the US marines who were stationed at American military bases in Chaguaramas, the impact of US naval withdrawal on local sex workers, and the desperation of those women after the closure of the bases in the post-war period.
Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina
Round de corner posin'
Bet your life is something dey sellin'
But when you catch them broken you could get dem all for nuttin'
Doh make no row
De Yankee gone and Sparrow take over now
The 1956 song gave Sparrow his first Calypso King crown and his first Carnival Road March title.
Its genesis, however, is rooted in classism, which was pervasive in post-slavery Trinidad. Sparrow’s response to the experience turned out to be a reflection of the ingenuity of the calypsonian.
The original version of the song had been written as a radio advertising jingle which Sparrow proposed to a big dry goods store in Port of Spain, Salvatori, Scott & Co Ltd. The company, apparently too posh to entertain a calypso-style sound branding to promote its business, snubbed the jingle without even listening to it.
The business had been founded by a Frenchman, Joseph Henry Salvatori, who had come to Trinidad in 1910 to liquidate some of his uncle's property interests. Salvatori remained to work in the cocoa business and, in 1913, acquired a dry goods concern, Wilson Sons & Co. He entered into partnership with CW Scott, formerly of Wilson Sons & Co, under the name Salvatori, Scott and Co. On Scott’s death in 1919, Salvatori assumed full responsibility for the business, formed a limited liability company, and became the governing director.
Salvatori’s department store became so successful that years later, in 1961, his company built the iconic Salvatori building at the corner of Frederick Street and Marine Square (now Independence Square).
The company’s image could not accommodate calypso, which, in its early days, was considered crude, vulgar and not culturally proper, so much so that respectable people would not be expected to sing it.
Sparrow, who was only three years into a fledgling career, wanted to join the ranks of those seasoned calypsonians who were using the indigenous artform for commercial benefit.
“Jingles were really going (in the mid-50s)," he recalled. “So I said to myself, if I really want to get in on this thing, then, maybe, Salvatori, Scott and Co would really be the place that might be interested. I say they really look big and successful, so I made the jingle and went to ‘the man.’ He just continued to listen to me, but never listened to the song. Eventually, he called me and gave me two dollars. A fella named Jean Antoni. He never heard the song or anything. He just got tired of me bothering him.”
In a 1980s interview with Alvin Daniel on TTT’s Calypso Showcase, Sparrow provided more detail:
“I always tell people that during the days of up and down in Port of Spain, just regular, I had a melody in my head: Salvatori, Scott and Co... dum dee dee dum dum. Just a little melody.
“In those days, people like (Lord) Melody and Small Island Pride were advertising for Hi-Lo and Glamour Girl Lingerie and so on.
“So I thought that Salvatori should be advertising. They’re bigger and they seem prosperous; why aren’t they advertising. So I made up the thing.”
Sparrow believed the jingle he composed was very catchy.
These were the lyrics:
Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina
Came to me one morning
After they complete their shopping. And they told me, Honey,
I never had more luxury
More than when I stop
And went into Salvatori to shop.
Undaunted by Antoni’s rejection, Sparrow remained confident about the melody of the composition. So, being in tune with current affairs, and astute enough to adapt the song to reflect contemporary social circumstances, he changed the lyrics while retaining the main characters – Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina –and adding a fifth one, Dorothy.
“I thought that (the jingle) was nice. And I had loved the characters.”
The female shoppers in the jingle became streetwalkers seeking financial survival during the country’s economic depression.
Trinidad’s economy was going through a slump exacerbated by a slow departure of servicemen from the US naval base at Chaguaramas following the end of World War II. For many women, being mopsies for the remaining sailors was still an option for income; some husbands even looking the other way as jobs were becoming scarce. This gave Sparrow the inspiration to build the story of Jean and Dinah.
Yankees in town
The US had established naval bases in Trinidad during the war as part of an agreement with the British, who wanted to boost security of shipping lines because Nazi U-boats had been prowling the Caribbean Sea.
The Americans arrived on October 10, 1940. The Chaguaramas base was commissioned on June 1, 1941, and achieved full operation in 1943.
The base was met with some controversy. Trinidad’s Governor, Hubert Winthrop Young, did not agree with the location because it would displace villagers and close the area’s beaches. Young felt the base should be built in the Caroni Swamp. The British overruled him and eventually sent him home to England in 1942.
The right to evict people from the Chaguaramas peninsula was given to the Americans by the Lease Land Agreement, the Defence Regulations, and the Trinidad Base Agreement. Chaguaramas became a full military area and the northwest peninsula was strictly prohibited to the public. Villagers were relocated to Carenage, Diego Martin, St James, and Port of Spain.
The strategic position of Chaguaramas came into global prominence as a result of the base, which became one of the famed “destroyer bases.”
Years after the war ended in 1945, the US began scaling back its military presence on the island. It was also faced with Dr Eric Williams’s nationalist demand for an end to American occupation of Chaguaramas on a 99-year lease.
This dealt a blow to the national economy as, at one time there’d been some 25,000 US troops and workers on an island, and thousands of Trinidadians got jobs on the American bases (such as cutting and paving roads and runways, and putting up various ancillary and temporary structures), earning much better money than before. Also, with the presence of young, unattached sailors flaunting Yankee greenbacks, prostitution flourished.
By the mid-20th century, there was a reduced but still significant number of young US sailors on the island willing to pay for female companionship and entertainment.
In 1956, Sparrow, still a fledgling singer, took inspiration from the scenario to turn rejection into opportunity: “The tune in my head. And when the Yankees, coincidentally, had to leave, I got the idea (for the Jean and Dinah calypso) one time. And it wasn’t very difficult to use the same characters."
Well, the girls in town feeling bad
No more Yankees in Trinidad
They going to close down the base for good
Them girls have to make out how they could
Brother, is now they park up in town
In for a penny, and in for a pound
Believe me, it's competition for so
Trouble in the town when the price drop low.
With Jean and Dinah (Yankee Gone), Sparrow's first hit was born. His prize for winning the 1956 Calypso King title was only $40.
The paltry sum (the winner of the Carnival Queen beauty contest won $7,500) inspired his next song,Carnival Boycott, in protest for fairer pay for calypsonians. Other singers followed him and together they formed the Carnival Development Committee.
Such victory and influence were what Sparrow could only have dreamt of even a year before, in 1955, when he offered up three calypsoes: The High Cost of Living, Ruby Where the Baby Disappear?, and Racetrack Scandal.
The High Cost of Living was the signal of a career replete with social commentary on life in the country.
The high cost of living
Higher than a mountain
People like me and you so
Just have to stand up
And watch the goods at Hi-Lo.
That Jean and Dinah would help propel him to Calypso King throne was somewhat unexpected, Sparrow said on Calypso Showcase.
“When I went up there I really wasn’t too particular about winning. I’d been with calypsonians who said they’d been up there four times, seven times, and never win. So when I got my break there, I said, 'Well, if I don’t win I will have another chance.' So I just went out there and let it all hang out and throw up my hat in the air and carried on. When the people started to react, I said I must be doing something good... From the first verse the stands were in an uproar...''
The Calypso King victory was followed by Road March dominance.
Sparrow was not the first calypsonian to tackle the Yankee withdrawal from Trinidad. The topic had previously been explored in the post-1945 period by Lord Kitchener, Lord Invader, Lord Beginner, Roaring Lion, Mighty Growler, and others.
Invader’s most famous calypso about the Yankees in Trinidad was one he composed with Lionel Belasco, Rum and Coca Cola, a song later covered illegally in a whitewashed version by the American singing trio The Andrews Sisters.
Sparrow’s take on the topic was adapted by American film star Robert Mitchum, who released a version of Jean and Dinah on his 1957 hit album Calypso…is like so.
Dr Gordon Rohlehr, in his seminal 1990 book Calypso and Society in Pre-Independence Trinidad, wrote that it was remarkable that Sparrow was able to resuscitate the topic a full decade later. He said it is likely that the calypso made its impact through Sparrow’s personality: his youth, vigour, and confidence, and the sense that he represented the newness of the time.
The years of Little Sparrow
Sparrow, born Slinger Francisco in Grenada on July 9, 1935, came to Trinidad as a child. His mother Clarisse brought the 18-month-old Francisco and his elder brother on a small boat, his father having relocated here in 1937 in search of a better life for the family.
“In those days, Trinidad was seen as the America of the Caribbean,” Sparrow explained. “People came seeking a better lot in life.”
Slinger’s first stage performance of a calypso came at age 13 when his teacher at Newtown Boys’ RC School, Carl Jadunath, allowed him to sing one at a school concert. He had been introduced to popular music and calypso through the vinyl records his father played on the family gramophone. As a teenager, he and his friends would gather under the sole neighbourhood light pole at Four Roads, Diego Martin, to sing in mock competitions.
On leaving school, he worked for a while for the government Control Board. But, the lure of the stage took him to perform calypso at nights at Lotus Club, and he found the gigs became the better-paid job.
At 19, he ignored his father’s remonstration to “get a real job,” rejected the $50-a-month job that his mother had lined up for him, and announced his intention to sing calypso for a living.
His first performance as a Carnival singer came in 1954 with The Parrot and the Monkey.
His first performing name was Little Sparrow, which was the result of the ribbing he got from other calypsonians about his quick, energetic movements, flitting across the stage at the Old Brigade Tent.
Sparrow recalled, “When I started singing, the bands were still using acoustic instruments and the singers would stand flat-footed, making a point or accusing someone in the crowd with the pointing of a finger, but mostly they stood motionless. When I sing, I get excited and move around, much like (American soul singer) James Brown, and this was new to them. The older singers said, 'Why don't you just sing instead of moving around like a little Sparrow?' It was said as a joke, but the name stuck.”
Eventually, as the young calypsonian gained popularity for singing his own songs and not from the repertoire the calypso greats, Little Sparrow morphed into Mighty Sparrow.
Jean and Dinah became the first of Mighty Sparrow’s eight Road March victories, and helped win him the first of his eight Calypso Monarch titles.
Sparrow rewarded his parents with a meteoric rise in the calypso world, establishing himself as one of the greatest all-round calypsonians of all time.
Jean and Dinah is now part of Trinidad folklore and history, and arguably one of the greatest calypsoes ever written.