Michael Reckord interviewed Olive Lewin extensively for a short story on her life called 'Olive's Picture Book' that was never published. Here, The Gleaner will be unveiling details of that life from those interviews over the next few days. Stay tuned.
(This creative non-fiction story is based on interviews with Olive Lewin in 2006 and 2007).
Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer
Olive's picture Book is full of interesting memories. Let's take a look at some of them.
Here's a picture of Olive at age nine with her mother, Sylvia. They are working in their garden, replanting tomato seedlings, weeding the flower beds and watering all the plants.
As she works, Sylvia sings:
"Daniel God surely will deliver
Daniel God surely will deliver
If we only look to Him by faith
Daniel God surely will deliver."
"Mama," says Olive, "let me do the rest of the weeding. See broom weed over there by the roses. I'll get rid of them."
"All right, dear." says her mother.
"For six sixpence."
Her mother chuckles. "Oh, I though it was for the pleasure of having a beautiful, weed-free garden."
"Not this time, Mama. I need the money."
"Oh, you girls putting on a concert again tomorrow?"
Olive nods and smiles, already anticipating the concert.
This conversation tells us it is Saturday. Olive and her sisters, Monica and Jeanette, often staged musical Sunday evenings in the drawing room of their house in Hayes, Clarendon.
Hayes is a small community today, and in 1936 it was tiny. Its main claim to fame is that it is the site of one of the oldest churches in Jamaica. But just because it was tiny didn't mean it lacked life.
For Olive, to whom sound was very important, one of the major indications of the vibrancy of the community was its noises and music. For example, early in the morning, as she got ready for school, she would hear people passing her home.
The men whistled, the women sang, mules and donkeys brayed as they passed. Their owners called out their names, to Olive's great amusement, for the animals were often named after prominent people in the district. Other animal sounds which Olive noted, were the songs of birds, the whistling of tree frogs, the "moooo" of a cow calling to her calf.
In the morning at seven, on an estate four miles away, a conch would be blown to indicate the start of work. At lunch time it would blow again, and in the evening yet again, when work on the estate ceased.
Then there were train sounds. Olive heard those when she started taking the train from May Pen to Balaclava, on her way to Hampton School, a small boarding school for girls in the hills of St Elizabeth. The sounds included the "Hullo, hullo" of the drivers of the trolleys sharing the line with the bigger trains, the "Hurry up, hurry up," warnings of the conductors as the train prepared to pull out of the stations, and, once on the train, the singing and preaching on the train by passengers.
At Hampton, Olive's first connection with another student was not the best. The girl didn't like how dark Olive was.
Most of the girls at Hampton in Olive's time were very fair skinned or white.
"Can you play the piano?" asks the girl.
"A little," says Olive.
"I can play very well," declares the girl. "We have a piano at home. I bet you don't have one."
The girl stares at Olive disbelievingly. "Really? Well, I'm sure I can play better than you."
"I don't know," says Olive. "What can you play?"
"Listen." And the girl sits at the piano and, without making a single fault, plays Mary Had a Little Lamb.
Triumphantly, she looks up at Olive. "There. Now what can you play?"
Olive smiles. "Well, I can play Chopin."
"Who?" The girl frowns. "Who's Chopin?"
"One of the Masters," says Olive. "Or I could play a bit of Mendelssohn."
"Or Schubert, if you wish. Or Bach."
"I've never heard of those people," said the girl, now quite flustered.
"But you shall," said a voice from the door. The girls turn as the teacher enters the room. She adds, "And soon."
Why did she say that? Because Hampton was a very musical school. It had 14 pianos in all, 13 for student use and a grand piano in the hall for big musical occasions. Each class had a period devoted to singing and there was a school choir and a string orchestra.
It was largely because of the school's emphasis on music — and the arts, generally, for there was also craft work, Greek dancing and drama — that Olive's father, Richard, insisted on sending Olive and her older sister to Hampton.
THE POWER OF COLOUR
Because of their colour, the girls were teased mercilessly by classmates for a couple of terms, but they soon showed they were superior students, both in academics and in music, and eventually the teasing stopped.
In fact, the teasing turned to admiration the year Olive was given a bursary by the Associated Board for her good work in music. Her teacher generously swapped her violin for Olive's bursary money, though the violin was worth much more. When she was 16, in 1943, Olive won the West Indies Scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in England.
Olive's love of music started at home. Both her mother and father played the piano — her father with his right hand only, for his left had been permanently injured by a bullet. They started teaching Olive and her sisters the piano and violin when they were quite young, and encouraged them to listen to their 78 rpm records on their gramophone.
SOURCES OF MUSIC
Other sources of music for the girls were the Salvation Army Band when it visited the community, and political meetings at which political party songs, hymns and choruses were sung when the major politicians of the period, Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley, held political meetings in Hayes. Sometimes they were on the same night but there was no violence at the meetings and the girls were allowed to attend. Mr Lewin actually said they were educational.
The music dearest to Olive's heart was Jamaican folk music. Mr Lewin, the headmaster of Hayes Elementary School, would take his family to musical concerts at the school and also to Pocomania and Revival meetings, where they heard traditional religious songs.
They made Olive "ecstatically happy," she confessed. Little did she know how important an influence they were to have on her later life.