Wayne Marshall resurrects, and explores the significance of, the correct lyrics to the Jamaican folk song sampled in some new radio jingle that hopes to go a milli.
You have to hear how Miss Lou puts it herself. If you aren’t familiar with the pioneering work of Miss Lou, you should know, at least, that she’s a towering figure in Jamaican culture, more responsible than perhaps anyone else for recuperating the distinctive twists and turns of Jamaican creole English, aka patois / patwa. (Miss Lou’s legacy on this count includes her legitimation of alternate spelling and pronunciation practices.) Not only was Miss Lou a walking, talking, singing vessel of Jamaican folklore, she also created a body of patwa poetry that has been committed to memory by generations of Jamaican children and which includes my favorite poem about reggae (even though it was written in 1966, before reggae hit the town).
Just hear how she tells the story of “Banana Boat Song” and coaxes a sympathetic call&response from her adoring audience (note: after thinking aloud about it — what year it was? — Miss Lou guesses it was the 1960s when she and Belafonte first sang the song together, but given that Calypso came out in 1956, she must have meant the 50s):
Louise Bennett, “Banana Boat Song” (from Lawd…Di Riddim Sweet)
The only thing is I did teach him to say “6 hand, 7 hand, 8 hand” and him a say “6 foot, 7 foot” [laughter]. My dear! So I said, after it became famous now, I think, great. Singer of Jamaican folk songs. I say, “Harry, but what about this foot ting? Banana don’t have toe, y’know. Di banana have fingers.” Him say, “yes.”
Notably, Belafonte did apparently eventually correct his rendition. By the time he’s performing the song on the Muppet Show in 1978, we’re back to “hand” –
But the classic version, as heard on the old 78, as famously re-animated in Beetlejuice, and now again given new life by Bangladesh, most definitely says “foot” –
And, so, funny enough, the one part that Belafonte gets bizarrely backwards is the part that Bangladesh and Weezy fasten onto. This makes sense: it sounds like a proud, strong-backed boast in Belafonte’s rendition, fit for full-throated brag-raps and ennobling folkloric worksongs alike.
What’s especially interesting then, about Miss Lou’s exegesis, is that it’s not so much about the correct body part to describe clusters of bananas, it’s about the central meaning of the song itself. The workers may be strong and proud; they came to work, not to idle. But they’ve been working all night and they’re exhausted. They waaaaaaan go home, and they want the bossman and the tallyman to take it easy on them as they make the final, daybreak round of a backbreaking night.