Episode 114: "My Boy Lollipop" by Millie
This week's episode looks at "My Boy Lollipop" and the origins of ska music. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "If You Wanna Be Happy" by Jimmy Soul.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
As usual, I have created a Mixcloud playlist containing every song heard in this episode -- a content warning applies for the song "Bloodshot Eyes" by Wynonie Harris.
The information about ska in general mostly comes from Bass Culture: When Reggae Was King by Lloyd Bradley, with some also from Reggae and Caribbean Music by Dave Thompson.
Biographical information on Millie Small is largely from this article in Record Collector, plus a paywalled interview with Goldmine magazine (which I won't link to because of the paywall).
Millie's early recordings with Owen Gray and Coxsone Dodd can be found on this compilation, along with a good selection of other recordings Dodd produced, while this compilation gives a good overview of her recordings for Island and Fontana.
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I refer to "Barbara Gaye" when I should say "Barbie Gaye"
Today, we're going to take our first look at a form of music that would go on to have an almost incalculable influence on the music of the seventies, eighties, and later, but which at the time we're looking at was largely regarded as a novelty music, at least in Britain and America. We're going to look at the birth of ska, and at the first ska record to break big outside of Jamaica. We're going to look at "My Boy Lollipop" by Millie:
[Excerpt: Millie, "My Boy Lollipop"]
Most of the music we've looked at so far in the podcast has been from either America or Britain, and I'm afraid that that's going to remain largely the case -- while there has been great music made in every country in the world, American and British musicians have tended to be so parochial, and have dominated the music industry so much, that relatively little of that music has made itself felt widely enough to have any kind of impact on the wider history of rock music, much to rock's detriment.
But every so often something from outside the British Isles or North America manages to penetrate even the closed ears of Anglo-American musicians, and today we're going to look at one of those records.
Now, before we start this, this episode is, by necessity, going to be dealing in broad generalisations -- I'm trying to give as much information about Jamaica's musical culture in one episode as I've given about America's in a hundred, so I am going to have to elide a lot of details. Some of those details will come up in future episodes, as we deal with more Jamaican artists, but be aware that I'm missing stuff out.
The thing that needs to be understood about the Jamaican music culture of the fifties and early sixties is that it developed in conditions of absolute poverty. Much of the music we looked at in the first year or so of the podcast came from extremely impoverished communities, of course, but even given how utterly, soul-crushingly, poor many people in the Deep South were, or the miserable conditions that people in Liverpool and London lived in while Britain was rebuilding itself after the war, those people were living in rich countries, and so still had access to some things that were not available to the poor people of poorer countries.
So in Jamaica in the 1950s, almost nobody had access to any kind of record player or radio themselves. You wouldn't even *know* anyone who had one, unlike in the states where if you were very poor you might not have one yourself, but your better-off cousin might let you come round and listen to the radio at their house. So music was, by necessity, a communal experience.
Jamaican music, or at least the music in Kingston, the biggest city in Jamaica, was organised around sound systems -- big public open-air systems run by DJs, playing records for dancing. These had originally started in shops as a way of getting customers in, but soon became so popular that people started doing them on their own. These sound systems played music that was very different from the music played on the radio, which was aimed mostly at people rich enough to own radios, which at that time mostly meant white British people -- in the fifties, Jamaica was still part of the British Empire, and there was an extraordinary gap between the music the white British colonial class liked and the music that the rest of the population liked.
The music that the Jamaican population *made* was mostly a genre called mento. Now, this is somewhere where my ignorance of this music compared to other musics comes into play a bit. There seem to have been two genres referred to as mento. One of them, rural mento, was based around instruments like the banjo, and a home-made bass instrument called a "rhumba box", and had a resemblance to a lot of American country music or British skiffle -- this form of mento is often still called "country music" in Jamaica itself:
[Excerpt: The Hiltonaires, "Matilda"]
There was another variant of mento, urban mento, which dropped the acoustic and home-made instruments and replaced them with the same sort of instruments that R&B or jazz bands used. Everything I read about urban mento says that it's a different genre from calypso music, which generally comes from Trinidad and Tobago rather than Jamaica, but nothing explains what that difference is, other than the location. Mento musicians would also call their music calypso in order to sell it to people like me who don't know the difference, and so you would get mento groups called things like Count Lasher and His Calypsonians, Lord Lebby and the Jamaica Calypsonians, and Count Owen and His Calypsonians, songs called things like "Hoola Hoop Calypso", and mentions of calypso in the lyrics.
I am fairly familiar with calypso music -- people like the Mighty Sparrow, Lord Melody, Roaring Lion, and so on -- and I honestly can't hear any difference between calypso proper and mento records like this one, by Lord Power and Trenton Spence:
[Excerpt: Lord Power and Trenton Spence, "Strip Tease"]
But I'll defer to the experts in these genres and accept that there's a difference I'm not hearing. Mento was primarily a music for live performance, at least at first -- there were very few recording facilities in Jamaica, and to the extent that records were made at all there, they were mostly done in very small runs to sell to tourists, who wanted a souvenir to take home.
The music that the first sound systems played would include some mento records, and they would also play a fair number of latin-flavoured records. But the bulk of what they played was music for dancing, imported from America, made by Black American musicians, many of them the same musicians we looked at in the early months of this podcast. Louis Jordan was a big favourite, as was Wynonie Harris -- the biggest hit in the early years of the sound systems was Harris' "Bloodshot Eyes". I'm going to excerpt that here, because it was an important record in the evolution of Jamaican music, but be warned that the song trivialises intimate partner violence in a way that many people might find disturbing. If you might be upset by that, skip forward exactly thirty seconds now:
[Excerpt: Wynonie Harris, "Bloodshot Eyes"]
The other artists who get repeatedly named in the histories of the early sound systems along with Jordan and Harris are Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair -- a musician we've not talked about in the podcast, but who made New Orleans R&B music in the same style as Domino and Pri…