Sparrow has to stop doing that. The national heart can’t take more of this. But I hear the truth is that he up in Brooklyn working on a new album and this was a publicity stunt for it. He wants us to say “Sparrow come back home…oh god …Do leave us to moan”. The bad talk had already started when the man changed his mind. He decided he nah leaving!
The New York Times, big Yankee newspaper, get fooled. Lennox Grant say they call down here trying to get information. They already had an obituary fashioned, only to find out you not dead yet. Look this is extempo. It has to be irreverent. Is Sparrow I talking bout, and I plan to come with this next year.
For two weeks the public here had been on alert because our most important artiste the Mighty Sparrow, our Grenadian and national treasure, was in a coma in hospital.
Then there was the rumour that he was dead, this of course provoking anguish here. But soon we got the news that he had emerged from the coma and was gathering his strength again. We are relieved. I thought to myself that this is life imitating art. Those from my generation will remember that one of Sparrow’s most popular early songs was “Simpson”, in which he complained about a rumour being spread in the country that he was dead.
Sparrow at his best. In this extremely musical and witty song, Sparrow took us through his reasoning as to who had reason to spread a rumour like that. He had two suspects in mind, the first being “Simpson the funeral agency man”, who, for obvious reasons, would want Sparrow or anybody else to be dead. “Simpson” was the dominant refrain in the song, the chorus crooned by “Laddie” “Nap Hepburn” and others.
Sparrow said this rumour was so believable that people all over town took it seriously and started planning his wake and funeral. “For the funeral dey hire All Stars; but the wake was too scamp, Cyril Diaz” (the latter a brass band). The story that the rumour concocted was that “he was in some kinda collision, poor soul, and he dead bad and gone”. So there was bad talk.
Sparrow felt that there was a second more sinister suspect, who had reasons for wanting him dead. The main reason being professional jealousy. This booboo man was Sparrow’s best friend. They sang in Sparrow’s tent together. This man had been a thorn in his side and had made a calypso in which he disrespected Sparrow’s new wife, saying “when yuh wife walking, people say she shaking”.
“She should wear ah corsette, she face like a mask, dat is why the boys does call she—Belmont Jackass”. Sparrow sang that in the end he had to rule out Simpson as the source of the rumour, and that there could only be one man guilty of this and it was Lord Melody “the ugliest calypsonian, he face like a saucepan, so ugly and mauvais langue”.
But Belmont Jackass was a reprisal song. Sparrow had earlier sung “Madame Dracula” a reference to Melody’s wife, in which he described melody’s attire at his wedding thus; “Yuh shirt out yuh trousers; Yuh jacket so short; like when yuh appearing; for tiefing fowl in the police court”.
There is relief in the national and global community that the most recent rumour is false, and that we once more have our icon among us to cherish and to revere. In an odd way, this kind of rehearsal allows us an opportunity to focus more sharply on the contribution and importance of this remarkable and supremely intelligent man whose gift was to bring the street to us, pure, unforgiving, unadulterated. I am talking about Sparrow in his prime, the essential Sparrow.
The man who could fill a hall year round. I first saw him in Naparima Bowl, far from Carnival. This early Sparrow kept the juke boxes in rum shops going nonstop in his heyday. We could turn away from the street if we want. We could pretend that the Jamettes did not exist, but if you were in town, in the glory days, you had to contend with Marabunta Jean, and Gateway Elaine. These were real people that Sparrow and the men about town knew. These were gritty women who could speak up to the badjohns. They could be seen on the balconies of the recreation clubs in town, and indeed in the gateways.
Sparrow’s greatest song was his first, “Jean and Dinah”, 1956. It was an ingenious song that only he could see. It was a street level view of colonial oppression. The small man going to haunts like Miramar and being overlooked, not being able to compete with the Yankee dollar. The song foreshadowed the end of colonial rule. The Yankees gone and Sparrow take over. By 1962, the British governor had vacated, and Solomon Hochoy was in his place. Then Sparrow turned his eye to Eric Williams, helping him greatly in a song that educated the public as to why they should pay income taxes. Without taxes he said, we would not be able to build schools, and our children would grow up as fools.
Through personal accounts, Sparrow alerted the public to gun violence in the streets, five decades ago. He himself got a gun for protection, and of course, Melody snitched him on this in a song which said “Attention, listen everyone; beware! Sparrow have a gun”. Sparrow was to come clean in “Ten to one is murder” when he said that some fellas chased him from Miramar, to “Way down Henry Street by HGM Walker”.
Then he heard potow! pow! and the crowd start to scatter.” The judge agreed with him. That must be self-defence. Sparrow did not condone violence, he was saying in his calypsoes that the badjohns were making life difficult for citizens in the city.
For me longevity is one of the compelling proofs of greatness in any field. This is why I think Desperadoes to be the most important steelband we have. They have endured. Sparrow is great on that count alone. If we take 1956 (Jean and Dinah) as his baseline, he would have been at this for 57 years and counting. Look beyond the songs to the entrepreneur. To Sparrow’s Hideaway, and to his calypso tents. He has been his own man.
Sparrow has been one of our most perceptive scholars. He looked broadly and deeply for his topic. Yes there was “Patsy”, and “Jane”, and “Jean and Dinah”, and “Natasha”, but there was also “Education”, and “Federation and Sputnik”, and “Slave”.
Prof Gordon Rohlehr of UWI has taught us all that the calypsonian has as clear an understanding of the society as anyone. They are our poets. Derek Walcott has said that he wished he himself had written Bob Marley’s line “in ah government yard in Trenchtown”.
Sparrow has encouraged us to be drunk and disorderly, but it is the case that his attack on Cutteridge (Dan is de man) was as severe an indictment of colonial education as we have seen.
Look, Sparrow ent dead. Tell Kitchener to put down the bottle and spoon. But we cannot rule out the prospect that the rumour was started by the Birdie himself, just trying to catch corbeau alive. Woyah!
Theodore Lewis is Emeritus Professor, University of Minnesota.