CREATIVE SPACE #14 OF 2022 (Uploaded July 13th 2022)
CREATIVE SPACE is an award-winning series spotlighting local (Antiguan and Barbudan/Caribbean) art and culture. As a brand, it dates back to 2009, published exclusively in LIAT’s inflight magazine. It was revamped in 2018 as a blog series and syndicated as of 2019 on Antiguanice.com. Its publishing partner, as of 2020, is the Daily Observer newspaper. It has its first print run in the paper every other Wednesday, with the online extended edition with EXTRAS running here on the blog and full interviews and extras on AntiguanWriter on YouTube. In 2021, the two–part CREATIVE SPACE mini-series on marine culture placed third in the OECS clean oceans journalists challenge. CREATIVE SPACE is created, owned, and written by Joanne C. Hillhouse – Antiguan-Barbudan/Caribbean author, journalist, producer, and freelance writer, editor, and trainer.
Here’s a link to the issue as it appeared in the Daily Observer newspaper on July 13th 2022:
Below is the extended online edition (not a duplicate of the edition with publishing partner Observer Media) with EXTRAS.
CREATIVE SPACE #14 OF 2022: DO YOU KNOW THIS MAN?
If you’re an Antigua-Barbuda calypso-head; you should know Quarkoo – the benna-singing town crier is widely regarded as the foundation of modern Antiguan calypso. In 2001, Figgy sang, in the Shelly Tobitt penned “Look what they’ve done to my song”, about “… when dey jail Quarko/for singing about de gyal de governor rape” (other sources, including Smith and Smith’s To Shoot Hard Labour, report that Quarkoo was jailed for six months after attracting the ire of an influential Moravian minister for a song “Cocoatea” about a young woman who returned from seminary “with a big fat belly”).
The commonly circulated image of John ‘Quarkoo’ Thomas – which may have originally run with the 1942 National Geographic article “Americans in the Caribbean” – shows him in the white suit, ringing his bell, mouth flung open mid-song. The town crier functioned as St. John City’s herald in the 1940s and 50s, letting people know what was going on in real time (like the calypso it inspired, benna’s topics and tone ranged from ribald fun to social commentary). Quarkoo was associated with a printer and sold his songs – an early form of music publishing. Quarkoo, who reportedly got his news by parking himself near the court house, also, exists in living memory for people like my mother who would be distracted by his entertainment when sent on errands. As a child, she found “de song an’ dem so sweet…I does forget they send me out”. These songs, per the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda archives, “gave details of events ranging from the gruesome murders and courthouse trials to scandalous husband/wife infidelities of the upper and middle classes in the society”; per my mother “Quarkoo was the radio…ah he one dat does let people know what happen.”
But do you know Thomas Joseph; a man whose identity often gets conflated with Quarkoo, a man who like Quarkoo composed songs he sang on the streets of St. John’s, Antigua, songs he also printed and sold as broadsides. One of those songs may even be the original version of the song popularly known as “Sly Mongoose” (and popularly mis-credited). Originally “Man Mongoose”, it has a lyric “Mongoose go in a Forrest Kitchen/Tief out one of ‘e big fat chicken” which references St. John’s “Scottish storekeeper” (per this Dan Lanier presentation) William Forrest, while the song is allegedly about a local scamp known as “Mongoose” (or could just be a reference to the thieving animal of the same name) – both of Thomas Joseph’s time. The song was, per Lanier, the sole reference to Thomas Joseph at Antigua and Barbuda’s National Archives.
The song’s credit credibly should be his.
One of the reasons I decided to write about this was to see what you know about either of these men; you too can help re-construct our history. Comment below.
Recently, Dan Lanier (already referenced), an American who worked for a time in Antigua, was researching someone he believed to be “as important a figure (as Quarkoo) in the history and development of Antiguan popular music”, that figure being Thomas Joseph, “who sold his compositions on the streets of St. John’s from the 1880s into the early 20th century”.
I took the time to view Lanier’s presentation, “A Shipwreck, a Ballad, and a Busker: Interpreting the Legacy of Antiguan Thomas Joseph”, delivered in June at the Connecticut Maritime Music and Tradition Society’s “Symposium on the Music of the Sea”. The Thomas Joseph images in this post are from that presentation. The lecture explored roots of traditional Antiguan popular music – including work shanties and singing meetings. Lanier also shared with me images, supplemental references, and broadsides of two of Thomas Joseph’s real-life-inspired ballads “THE FATAL ACCIDENT, or the untimely Death of Mr. ANTHONY LEE, on January 5th, 1888, Whilst employed in Blowing Stones in the New Reservoir at GRAY’S HILL” and “The Wreck of the A. E. Bosford” (1881) – which were more traditional in language and line than benna.
If you grew up when I did, 1970s to present, you probably know that there was “no benna on Sunday” (benna = Antigua’s brand of calypso). Unlike the ballad and other Western poetic forms, benna’s roots were African and creole. There is documentation of it being sung in the early 1800s by Africans enslaved in Antigua, who also used it to communicate with each other, despite efforts to suppress it. It relied heavily on things considered low brow, like the local vernacular. As a result, prejudices, external and internal, related to deep-seated race and class issues, affected attitudes to benna and its offspring, calypso; though today it/they are revered cultural art forms.
See examples of both John Thomas and Thomas Joseph’s styles (though I don’t mean to suggest that there was no variation) in EXTRAS.
Lanier first found references in obscure publications and letters from Joseph’s time to the man he regards as “a very skilled narrative ballad composer”.
Born between 1840 and 1850 into a Barbudan family, Thomas Joseph was identified by his swollen legs (resulting in the moniker “big foot Joseph”), as a sufferer of Lymphatic filariasis (Elephantiasis). More relevantly, though, he was called, in his time, “the sweet singer of Antigua” and “Antigua’s poet laureate”. Like Quarkoo, who would follow decades after him, “Thomas Josephs’ steam boat voice delivering the news” was a feature of street life in Antigua.
And we should know him, especially as we enter into Carnival season, the biggest platform of Antiguan artistic expression, especially mas, music, and calypso.
One of the interesting elements of researching this piece was the images of Antigua back then. I have to share some of them. Like this one from Lanier’s presentation. Can you make out where this is?
& these from the 1942 National Geographic.
The last slide is actually Trinidad, not Antigua, but if you’re a regular here, you might remember my post on grog and understand why I couldn’t resist sharing it.
Excerpts from the writing of Thomas Joseph, both based on true events:
from “The Wreck of the A. E. Bosford”, 1881-
“The Barque A. E. Basford to Barbuda she drew near
Not thinking we were close to land no danger did we fear
Until that fatal morning we felt the terrible shock
Oh! blessed God it was too true we were upon the rocks.
With consternation all around thinking no help at hand
To our surprise we saw boats then coming from the land
Not thinking of their danger some eighteen souls or more
Of which but five returned again unto their native shore”
from “THE FATAL ACCIDENT, or the untimely Death of Mr. ANTHONY LEE, on January 5th, 1888, Whilst employed in Blowing Stones in the New Reservoir at GRAY’S HILL” –
“ANTHONY LEE, a Montserrat lad,
met his death, so very sad;
in the glad morning of his bloom,
he was summoned to the tomb.
ANTHONY LEE as we are told
Took his drill and drill’d a hole;
Then to light! – instruction got,
Little he thought that was his lot.
This young man to Gray’s Hill went,
Not thinking that his life was spent;
He did not know his lot was cast,
When he was told to light the blast.
But how horrid, the sequel is to tell,
The noble workman how he fell
The fire sped away in haste,
And blew the powder in his face.
He fell flat upon the ground,
In the midst of smoking blasts surround;
And with the volleys of the rest,
The stones descended on his breast.
His comrads to his rescue went,
But their lives were almost spent;
And in making their escape,
One got injured, hand and face.
His lifeless corpse was borne to town,
Followed by thrilling groans and piercing moans
The solemn cries then rang the air
I could not but shed a tear.”
Lyrics from Thomas Joseph broadsides supplied by Dan Lanier, from his research.
Excerpts from the writing of John ‘Quarkoo’ Thomas:
from “Yes, it is more than tongue can tell” –
“Beef in the market, ten pence a pound
Look at the people that gather round
It will take two hours to get a pound
And most is bone and can’t go down
Fish we cannot get it at all
Sixpence a pound if ever so small
And the fishwoman
See how they can show off
You can call until you are tired
You won’t get noticed at all”
from “Mothers and Fathers” –
“Remember our Lord was tempted by Satan
Get thee behind me Satan was the Lord’s command
Children of today will not obey their parents
That their days may be long in the land
They walking with a knife to be their protection
Now the poor fellow is sentenced to hang”
Lyrics sourced from Dorbrene E. O’Marde’s King Short Shirt Nobody Go Run Me The Life and Times of McLean Emanuel
Local pianist Dr. George Roberts has been posting re-arrangements of Caribbean and international songs like “Sly Mongoose” and we end with that familiar tune –
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