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OFF CENTRE: Dennis Johnson didn’t say that!

Sherwyn Walters

OFF CENTRE: Dennis Johnson didn’t say that!

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Somebody at my home received a call last Tuesday saying that Dennis Johnson, referring to my column on the same day (Serious Kaiso – Whey De Lyric Art?), said on Fireworks that people should not write about things they don’t know anything about.
Now, I know that Barbadians like to taint people. It is an everyday perversion which the culture has nary a care about except when Rihanna seems to be the target.
But despite what people have said about Dennis Johnson over the years, I have felt that, all told, he is a kind of classy guy. So I don’t think he did such an unclassy thing.
Still, this is Barbados and, like Gabby, “I hear de talk, I hear the rumour . . . ” – from other sources.
In my defence, somebodies will mention that I was much in demand for radio commentary, judging contests (Crop Over and being chief judge of the King Of Kings competition), conducting NCF workshops, for my paper The Assessment Of Stage-Presented Calypso, frequently consulted by calypsonians, and so on.
All the same, I have decided to compose a response. Apposite, since a calypso is a composition.
Composition. In school, I was prolifically producing long, long voluntary essays, long short stories, a novelette, and lots and lots of poems – so much so that when I was 15, my English teacher called me out of class to introduce me to eminent Jamaican literary scholar Dr Edward Baugh.
By the time I was 18, a number of my 2 500-word stories had been broadcast on Radio Barbados and Rediffusion. And I had been published in Bim – in the 1960s! – which was not like today’s self-publishing. Yuh had to get past literary stalwarts. Like Frank Collymore, who, a year later as I pursued my Bachelor’s, was already guiding me towards a Master of Fine Arts in the States.
Next thing I am minding my business and I receive a letter from Nelson Publishers asking if I could kindly give them permission to publish one of my stories.
As time passed, I also wrote stage plays, radio scripts (about 120) and songs. I even wrote a jingle – Gabby know ’bout that.
But I was also an ardent studier of writing. I already tell wunna about my reading of almost every short story and the two books about writing stories in the Public Library by my mid-teens.
As life would have it, I also spent 31 years teaching composition – and constantly learning about its myriad forms.
And learning to assess it, even being a Caribbean Examinations Council examiner for 30 years – assessing composition – including creative/art composition, the short story. And they even promoted me.
Along the way I went to music lessons and pushed my head in book after book on music theory and design and bought music like money was no problem.
So interested have I been in the innards of music that I once spent 25 hours straight (I am not lying; I nearly killed myself) – from 5 a.m. one day to 6 a.m. the next – mostly transcribing the music to sections of calypsos, so I could delve into aspects of their design/composition.
Lucky me, a Blaupunkt “private” radio introduced me to Radio Trinidad and Radio Guardian at the beginning of the ’60s. And with great frequency I would “draw up under” the radio listening to the calypsos of Bomber, Striker, Killer, Melody, Sparrow, Dougla, King Solomon, Creator, Nelson, Cypher Nat Hepburn, Spoiler, Brynner, Cristo and others.
Believe it or not, up to a few years ago I still had exercise books with the points I awarded and the notes I made as I “judged” Trinidad contests all through the ’60s.
Good fortune again: in 1963 I got my hands on that blue softback copy of 120 Calypsoes Of Sparrow – what prodigious output!
I could also tell you about talking calypso in the bedroom of Trinidad kaiso curating legend and record retailer Hylton D. Rhyner (he gave me the last copy he had of an LP of the first recorded calypsos – I suppose I had bought so many records from his shop that he thought it was the least he could do).
Or about liming in Romey’s (Romeo Abraham) record shop in Prince Street and listening to Rocky McCollin, to whom Romey had introduced me.
So I steeped myself in the calypso milieu. But while there is some value in immersing yourself in whatever you hope to assess (in this case, calypso), I don’t believe that you develop the ability to assess things by some kind of hopeful osmosis – that if you are around the thing a lot, the ability to deconstruct will somehow seep into your being.
Yuh need conscious study, reflective engagement and deconstruction practice that build up of an organised body of knowledge about the thing and facility at articulately and incisively feeding back. That is what I tried to develop myself in.
So, as with other composition forms, I read everything I could get my eyes on – re calypso and other genres.
And if thoughtful, considered books and articles on song/music are not in my bookshelves, they are on my tablet, my Kindle, my smartphone, my desktop hard drive, on flash drives, on CDs.
There is probably no major book on the craft of songwriting published in the last 40 years that I have not read – I talking scores of them.
And since creative composition is art, I read Collingwood, Danto, Carroll, Dewey, Davies, Tolstoy, Matravers, Freeland and many others on the various theories of art.
I think I have managed to acquire a little pedigree.
And I have tried to bring to bear principles that cohere with considered, studied, thoughtful understandings of popular (if not always “pop”) music.
Because of space constraints I left out a lot. But even with all that I bring, I may still be wrong: a flaw in reasoning, something omitted from consideration, or some other damned human-fallibility gremlin. Or some still untapped something.
Not enough for any person in their right mind to say I don’t know what
I am writing about concerning calypso, though. As of now, I don’t believe Dennis Johnson did that.
• Sherwyn Walters is a writer who became a teacher, a song analyst, a broadcaster and an editor.