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The Mother of Jamaican Culture Remembered

Published:Sunday | June 3, 2012 | 12:00 AM

A 50th anniversary celebration of Jamaica's Independence would be incomplete without the inclusion of the contribution of Jamaica's legendary folklorist, actress, singer, comedienne and social commentator, The Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley, OM.

Dubbed the queen of Jamaica's theatre, and Jamaica's most cherished national treasure, she was decorated with the nation's third-highest honour, the Order of Merit (OM), by the Jamaican Government in 2001.

Miss Lou, as she was affectionately called, was born in Kingston Jamaica on September 7, 1919, and from a very early age, showed an interest in writing Jamaican dialect verses in the Jamaican vernacular. But her parents in the Spanish Town home in which she grew up, had an aversion to such things. They considered it loose talk, careless speech and a sign of low breeding, and, as such, it was never tolerated. But from that early age, Bennett was bent on proving them wrong.

She came to Kingston in the late 1920s and attended Calabar Elementary School, St Simon's College and Excelsior High School, where she consistently won prizes for English compositions. She soon began observing events and speech patterns of the common man. These she recorded in her dog-eared notebook and then converted them into rhymed commentaries.

Miss Lou saw the evolvement of the Jamaican dialect as a grand mixture of various cultures - 'When the Asian and European cultures buck up pon the African culture in the Caribbean people, wi stir them up and blend them to wi flavour, we 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'.

The real big turning point in Miss Lou's life came when she was spotted by actor and talent scout Eric Coverley, while she performed at a prize-giving concert at her alma mater, Excelsior, in 1939.

After the concert, she was congratulated by Coverley and invited to perform at the annual Christmas concert at the Ward Theatre. There she won the hearts of many, including family members who had previously denounced her dialect leanings. She also earned her first professional fee - one guinea or one pound and one shilling, which was a substantial amount for a debutante in those days.

MISS LOU AT Pantomime

Overjoyed and surprised, she ran home and exclaimed to her parents 'I didn't know Coverley was paying! However, the common interest she shared with Coverley brought them closer together, and the opportunity was created for Coverley to groom her for the world of theatre, a major part of which would be the annual Pantomime, in which Miss Lou figured prominently for a number of years.

The stages of development from business to a marriage proposal were dramatically and humorously related by Coverley as he attended one of Miss Lou's concerts:

'We got a lot of invitations, and people would always say to me "Bring Louise Bennett". At that time, we weren't that close, but knew each other quite well. And then she would get invitations to parties and they would say "Bring that boy Coverley", and that got us together. So after the shows, I had to escort her home every time, whether it was to a dance or a show. Many times I had to run back to catch the same subway. And then one night after taking her home, I said, 'Louise I can't stop a minute to talk with you. It seems that I will just have to marry you'. Miss Lou was startled and exclaimed '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 finally tied the knot in 1954.

Eric Coverley, without question, was the most important person in her life. And while he came to be overshadowed by his wife, he will always be remembered as the person who discovered and brought her to public attention. Coverley, however, was never to be totally outdone by his wife in terms of popularity, as he was also an accomplished actor, playing a lead role in the 1955 movie Manfish.

He died in Toronto, Canada, on August 7, 2002, at age 91.

First Collection

Miss Lou's first collection of verses, titled Humorous verses in Jamaican Dialect, was issued in the early 1940s.

In addition, she began to recite her dialect verses with success. Many were social commentaries which criticised the 'status quo' in a humorous way.

Doing justice to Miss Lou in one article is impossible, but we will always remember her very popular 1970-1982 children's programme on JBC TV - Ring Ding, her 1960s Lou and Ranny radio shows, and her daily radio commentaries 'Miss Lou's Views'.

In time, she became a major part of Jamaica's cultural landscape.

She championed Jamaica's culture and dialect in the face of much criticism and adversity, helping to break the barriers of cultural ignorance and inspire confidence.

Among her 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 in 2001.