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Edited by Annie J. Randall Music, Power, and Politics


There Goes the Transnational Neighborhood: Calypso Buys a Bungalow

Michael Eldridge

Chapter Excerpt

Sly Mongoose . . . Wouldn’t stop and he reach America.
—Trinidad-born vaudevillian Sam Manning’s 1924 version of an old Jamaican mento

I live in a place where, in the early 1900s, the Craftsman ideal took hold as it did in few other places in North America. Today, a good seventy years after its heyday and its eventual eclipse by postwar ticky-tacky, the California Bungalow is still the state’s preeminent style of domestic architecture. From one end of California to the other, craftsman cottages blanket the urban and rural landscapes; in Pasadena and the Berkeley Hills, Greene and Greene’s showpieces—apotheoses of the genre—have become holy shrines for Arts and Crafts pilgrims; and in my small college town, way up north behind the Redwood Curtain, well-preserved bungalows are so prized by a certain breed of middle-class refugee from the south that they fetch sums well above their already-inflated asking prices. Ever since its inception in William Morris’s industrialized England, of course, the Arts and Crafts movement was about nostalgia for a lost organic past; and so the bungalow, avatar of this Arcadian never-neverland, has for several generations symbolized an escape, albeit a rather compromised and disingenuous one, from the depredations of the modern world. Its calculatedly homey appeal may largely explain what my new neighbors (not to mention those legions who were so recently snapping up “Mission Oak” repros everywhere from upmarket Restoration Hardware to downscale K-Mart) are buying into. Still, the northerly flight of these migrants of means—from something they euphemize vaguely as “congestion,” or if pressed, “crime”—points indirectly to another, less homespun, of California’s late distinctions: its much-ballyhooed ballot measures of the 1990s restricting immigration, rolling back affirmative action, and (briefly) ending bilingual education. Thus, with the Golden State in the vanguard, did the American nation begin to work through another in a series of demographically inspired identity crises.1

The nature of the work carried out here, and the sometimes hysterical tone of its execution, invite us to be careful readers of similar moments in the past. Since the underlying anxieties of this latest crisis are often expressed publicly as concerns over broadening (and, it’s implied, divisive) cultural differences, for instance, it should be instructive to recall how America’s relations with an earlier generation of dark-skinned immigrants were mediated precisely through the transmission and reception of culture—specifically, and surprisingly, through calypso, an urban vernacular performance genre whose sophisticated poetics have not been widely appreciated outside the Caribbean. In this chapter, however, I’m interested not so much in calypso’s poetic pedigree as in its elucidation of a forgotten, crosscultural episode, a critical moment in the evolution of modern mass culture when calypso was at the nexus of another odd conjunction of racial tension, immigrant paranoia, and nostalgia for bungalows. I’m concerned, that is, with interpreting calypso’s attempted intervention into American pop culture of the 1930s, and with its mixed success in getting a grip on the slippery process by which people—particularly immigrants—of color are assimilated into the American body politic.

    * [Footnotes omitted in this excerpt. Please see full book.]


  • Image: Atilla the Hun and The Lion with an unidentified calypsonian at a recording session, ca. late 1930s.

  • Image: The Lion (Hubert Raphael Charles), 1936.

  • Audio: “I Am Going to Buy a Bungalow.” Composed and performed by The Lion, Hubert Raphael Charles. Recorded in 1938 and rereleased in 1993 by Rounder Records (MA), CD 1077.

    or right-click to download

  • Audio: “My Blue Heaven.” Composed by Walter Donaldson and George Whiting. Sung by Gene Austin. Released by Victor (NY) in 1927.

    or right-click to download

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