The Music Diaries | Jamaica remembers, celebrates the iconic Miss Lou
Jamaica's first lady of comedy, the iconic folklorist, actress, author, vocalist, and comedic social commentator, Dr the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley, will be remembered in a number of activities, celebrating the 98th anniversary of her birth, which occurred last Thursday, September 7.
Dubbed the queen of Jamaican theatre and Jamaica's most cherished national treasure, Bennett-Coverley championed the use of Jamaica's dialect (Patois) and culture in the face of much criticism and adversity, helping to break the barriers of cultural ignorance. Even in the home in which she grew up, anything short of the Queen's English was looked upon as degrading loose talk, careless speech, and low breeding.
Through dedicated work and sustained effort, Bennett-Coverly however, managed to overcome those obstacles, and in the process, established the Jamaican dialect as a legitimate language. She was adamant that if patois was a corruption of the English Language from which it was derived, then English ought to be a corruption of the Latin, Greek, French, and other languages from which it was derived. She also saw the evolution of the Jamaican dialect as a grand mixture of various cultures, African being the most predominant:
"When the Asian and European cultures
buck up pon the African culture in the Caribbean people
we stir them up and we blend them to wi flavour
wi shake them up and move them to wi beat
wi wheel them and wi tun them
and wi rock them and wi sound them.
Larks the rhythm sweet," she recited in one of her poems.
Fascinated with speech
Bennett-Coverley, had, from a very early age, become fascinated with the speech patterns of the common man, while showing an interest in writing dialect verses. She would, often, scribble interesting quotes in an ever-present notebook that she carried around with her, and when she got home, would translate them into rhymed verse. Bennett-Coverly continued this trend while attending St Simons College and Excelsior High School in the 1930s.
A noted impresario and talent scout named Eric Coverley happened to be in the audience as Louise Bennett performed at a school concert at her alma mater in 1939. So impressed was Coverley that he invited her and subsequently enrolled her to perform at a Christmas morning concert at the Ward Theatre in Kingston. Her performance won the hearts of thousands of fans. A star was born. She earned for herself one guinea, or one pound and one shilling, which was a substantial reward for a day's work in those days.
As the years went by, Bennett became much closer to Coverley through her involvement with the Jamaica pantomime, in which Coverley was also deeply involved. After escorting Bennett home from one of their shows, and being in a hurry to leave, Coverley said in jest, "Louise, I can't stop a minute to talk with you. it seems that I will just have to marry you." A startled Bennett retorted: "Coverley, is that the way you propose? That could never be a proposal!" But in a real sense it was as after 17 years of friendship, they got married in 1954.
Bennett-Coverley wrote, co-wrote, and performed in several subsequent pantomimes, while extending her reach in the areas of Anancy stories, nursery rhymes, and dialect verses. These she compiled in several books of poems, beginning with the first, titled Humorous Verses in Jamaican Dialect. She was also the composer of several folksongs and lullabies that included Long Time Gal, Chi Chi Bud, Heavy Load, The Buggy Bruk, Hosannah, and perhaps her best known composition, Evening Time, made popular by Joyce Laylor and keyboardist Jackie Mittoo. The opening lines ran:
"Come Miss Claire
Tek the bankra off yu head mi dear
Evening breeze a blow
Come dis way Miss Flo
Help down yah
Afta yu no beas' a burden ma
Ress youself at ease
Feel di evenin' breeze
Evenin' time, work is over now, it's evenin' time".
Miss Lou, as Bennett-Coverley was affectionately called, hosted the very popular children's programme Ring Ding at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation between 1968 and 1980, while airing her daily social commentaries - Miss Lou's Views - often times a satirical look at some irregularities with the 'status quo". The Lou and Ranny show, a once per week hilarious radio drama, which she starred with comedian Ranny Williams, was a must-listen. She has the distinction of hosting two radio programs on the prestigious British Broadcasting Corporation between 1945 and 1950.
Among her other major achievements were an MBE from the British Government in 1960; The Norman Manley Award for excellence in 1972; The Order of Jamaica in 1974; an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of The West Indies in 1983; Doctor of Letters from York University in 1998; and the Order of Merit from the Jamaican government in 2001.