From left Miss Lou, Miss Lou and Lois Kelly-Barrow, 1979, Miss Lou and Marse Ran in 'Bredda Buck', 1975, Miss Lou and husband, Eric, in a duet in Toronto.-File photos
Barbara Ellington, Contributor
SHE RETURNED to a hero's welcome last week Wednesday. It is her first visit home since she emigrated to Canada in 1987. Thoughts of home have never left her heart and in her adopted country, Louise Bennett-Coverley (Miss Lou), is always surrounded by a loving circle of Caribbean friends.
In an exclusive interview on Friday, The Sunday Gleaner spoke with Miss Lou just after she had completed an afternoon snack which included some juicy ripe mangoes. She tells a great story, interspersed with songs, stanzas from her dialects and liberal doses of laughter. She is filled with joy and finds humour in simple things, she recites her verses with ease and she was in a mood to reminisce about several events in her life over the years.
SG: Who and where is Auntie Roachie these days?
MISS LOU: (Chuckling) Public Opinion. Me mussie lef her a Canada or for all I know she might have followed me. I am certain Eric (Coverley, her late husband) came with me, I felt his presence with me on the journey from the airport.
SG: What do you miss most about Jamaica?
ML: I miss everything, the food most of all although I get ackee and saltfish and mackerel and bananas regularly (Miss Lou requested cornmeal dumplings with steamed calaloo for her supper Emancipation night). But I also miss the scenery especially Gordon Town where I lived for 35 years. I was married to Eric for 48 years, three months and two weeks.
SG: Do you miss having him around
ML: Lawd, I miss him you see. I never imagined that he was going to go, but I think he knew because the day before he died he told me he was tired of being sick and the next day he just slept away. He didn't look sick, he had a strong voice and always said "my voice is the strongest part of me". I knew him from I was 16 and at Excelsior, although there was nothing romantic at the time. He gave me my first professional fee on stage. Christmas of 1952 was the nicest and best one I've ever had, I can never forget it; it was the year before we were married and we spent it in New York.
SG: Checks with bookshops since your arrival revealed that all of your books have been sold out. How do you feel that after all these years, hundreds of children continue to receive gold, silver, and bronze medals for their interpretation of your work in the national Festival finals.
ML: I feel proud and I'm happy about it because I am glad to transmit the love of the folklore of our country to others. The songs, dances and stories, it is a joy to see how well people respond to them. At the beginning when I started to write for the Gleaner there were those who wrote in to criticise and say people will never be able to speak it but I just fix up one man who used to write in several times, with one of me poems -- ha, ha, ha.
So you a de man me hear bout,
A you dem seh a tek
Whole heap a English oath
Bout you gwine kill dialect
Mek me get it right maas Charlie
Me no quite understan,
You wa'n kill all English dialect
Or jus' de Jamaica one?
For if we k'ean sing Linstead Market
An wata come a me y'eye
Yuh wi haffie tap sing "Auld lang syne"
An "Comin thru de rye"
An mine how yu dah read dem English book de pon de shelf
For if yu miss a H, yu mighta haffi kill yuself.
I never heard from him again, him nevah write another letter to The Gleaner.
SG: How do you manage to retain so many of the poems at this age?
ML: I used to say them a lot, I hear them recited a lot and they are very alive and around me all the time.
SG: Many Jamaicans loved the popular television series Ring Ding, what inspired you to do it?
ML: It was at the time when Sesame Street had begun in the United States and they were contemplating bringing it here. The then JBC television invited me in to ask me if I would do a children's show to introduce each episode of Sesame Street. I did that for about a month but people started asking for more and so started Ring Ding for children it was based on Jamaican themes, with riddles and jokes and games and it was well received.
SG: Joan Andrea Hutchinson, Amina Blackwood Meeks and Carolyn Cooper are among those who currently encourage the use of and appreciation of our dialect. Do you think enough is being done to continue building on the foundation you have laid in encouraging us to be proud of what is ours?
ML: I think on a wider scale it could have been done better, but it's good to take it quietly like I did. I have been on programmes with Carolyn Cooper when she comes overseas to give talks and lectures in Toronto. I used to go all over the world and everywhere I went I spoke about the Jamaican dialect.
SG: Take us back to where it all began for you.
ML: When I was a student in London, the BBC would invite us (Caribbean students), to come and send greetings to our home countries. I was among invitees one year and the others before me were using their best English to say "Hello mamma, hello pappa, Merry Christmas, it is cold..." I thought to myself, "me not going up dere go do dat."
So when my turn came, I said:
Fambly and frend
Me journey end
Me ketch a London town
A Chrismus time a London town
It cold, it cold a London town
But is Chrismus time so happy
Afterwards we were on our way to lunch when a gentleman said he would like to talk to me in his office the next morning. When I enquired who he was, I found out he was the general manager for the General Overseas department of the BBC and his office was right there at the BBC. He said he had heard me and had long wanted a programme with a Caribbean flavour. He saw my greeting and liked my style, so he would like to speak to me.
I attended the meeting the next morning from nine and left after 12 with a contract. I named the programme Caribbean Carnival because it reached a Caribbean audience. I also had the BBC's 20 -piece variety orchestra and on Tuesdays I had a programme with a live audience that was broadcast later at night to the general overseas audience. It took off so much that by the third week people were standing in the snow waiting to come in. So I give God thanks for everything.
SG: Do you have the loving support of the wider Caribbean community in Canada now?
ML: Oh yes, especially Jamaicans more than anybody else and they are from all walks of life.
SG: Are you still writing
ML: I do and I have a lot of unpublished material; the thing I'm really concentrating on now is my memoirs. There are a lot of requests for interviews from people who want to do my memoirs but I would prefer to do my memoirs myself so that I don't get people writing things that aren't so. I have started making recordings to that effect.
SG: Are you happy with the Jamaica you see now or do you wish for the Jamaica of your youth?
ML: Jamaica is still the most beautiful place in the world, the people are still wonderful, what happen to us is that we too follow fashin. When we are overseas and hear bad things it makes us sad. When I was young the worst thing you heard, was that somebody drop down dead. And everybody say, "Lawd de poor ting drop dung dead."
SG: We notice your passion for bright vibrant colours, is that deliberate?
ML: First of all, Coverley used to love to see me in red (she smiles wistfully), but I also like bright colours. My mother who sewed her whole life made my clothes. When my outfits are being made, I have to have enough fabric to make a turban and sometimes matching handbags. When my mother was alive I went to bed to the sound of the sewing machine and woke up to it.
SG: If you could live your life all over is there anything you would change or do differently.
ML: I doubt it because I have this strong feeling that there is always a very good reason for things. Even though life has not always been a bed of roses, when I would say I'm so disappointed about something, my mother always said never say you're disappointed because something better is in store for you that does not seem likely at the time. Look at my life, everywhere I go, someone has heard about Miss Lou. I am happy with the legacy I am leaving for the people of Jamaica.