“I was really influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and what Blacks in the United States were suffering,” Irving Burgie says about his motivation to write a national anthem for an independent Barbados. (Picture by Sandy Pitt.)
THE IDEA THAT American-born Irving Burgie wrote the words of the National Anthem for an independent Barbados back in 1966 may still be troubling for some Barbadians mired in nationalism today.
But Burgie’s words: “We loyal sons and daughters all . . . Our brave forefathers sowed the seeds from which our pride is sprung”, were an acknowledgement of his roots as well as a tribute to his mother Viola Callender, the granddaughter of a freed Barbadian slave, who left Watts Village, St George, in 1917 for Brooklyn, New York, in search of a better life.
The fact that Barbadians have embraced the words he wrote and have made it a part of their national life and pride, fills him with satisfaction.
In an interview with the SUNDAY SUN yesterday, he said: “There is a movement in Barbados now to have the National Anthem sung by the people rather than have them stand at attention when it is played. It seems to me they have only been at it for 50 years and I am glad that they are embracing it at this point because you need to have your anthem sung by the people themselves. Just having them just respectfully standing, is not enough.”
Based on what he has seen of people’s acceptance of their national anthem in countries with a longer history of independence than Barbados, Burgie suggested that people have to be motivated and the National Anthem is an ideal vehicle.
He said: “When you come up with a national anthem in a country like Barbados that had been a colony of England for 300 years with 'God Save the Queen' as the anthem for Barbados and then you came to independence and people saw the Union Jack come down and you come in with a whole new thing, the population had to learn a whole new anthem.”
Burgie had already made a name for himself as a songwriter of international repute when friends in Barbados suggested he should write the words of a national anthem for the island then on the verge of independence from Britain. He pondered the suggestion for a while before finally putting pen to paper.
“The thing about it was that the (pre-independence) problems that Barbados was facing happened to be common to a whole group of islands at the same time. All the English-speaking islands in the West Indies, even the French and Spanish islands, were all moving towards independence after the Second World War. It was just a matter of when and how.”
Burgie was already internationally established as the author of songs which helped to place Harry Belafonte on the world stage with his 1956 album Calypso, the first gold album in music history. Songs from that album such as Day-O, Jamaica Farewell, Island In The Sun, are still popular 60 years later.
In reference to those people questioning Barbados’ choice of this American to write the National Anthem, Burgie explained: “At the time there were not many people in Barbados who had that kind of skill.
“In 1955 I had written the first album for Belafonte and it was called Calypso. It became the first album in history to sell a million copies in the world and so I was very well known in Barbados. I vacationed in Barbados, my wife and child, we spent time in Barbados on various occasions, so people in Barbados knew me and knew what I had done.”
The prolific writer of Caribbean songs said that after giving in to friends’ persuasion and composing the lyrics he considered suited to a Barbados National Anthem, “a couple of months passed and I was informed that the Government had decided to have a competition for the National Anthem, which they did and after having the competition they still selected my song as the National Anthem”.
In fact it was Government who entered his submission into the competition. “I guess there were probably some complaints about that so they probably said give everybody a chance,” Burgie said, the day after arriving in Barbados to participate in the 2016 Bim Literary Festival.
From time to time questions have been raised about whether the choice of words for the Barbados National Anthem was in fact entirely Burgie’s.
Fifty years after his submission was the one selected as winner in the national competition, the 91-year-old accomplished songwriter has said that not all the words of the National Anthem Barbadians sing daily are his.
He said: “Just a couple of words here and there” were inserted by the committee who had the final say. I did not put them in.”
Burgie added: “Some people ask what those words were, but I say I don’t think I should mention what the words were.
“The anthem was passed by a committee which, to this day I still think my words were better, but I have to go along with the flow and I think it has been proven that my words were better. You are never going to get a whole country to agree on anything.”
He maintains his thoughts were driven by his experiences with the civil rights movement in the United States and an awareness of a black struggle that was somewhat similar to what Blacks in these British colonies in the Caribbean were enduring. His pen was in parts steered by the voices of civil rights advocates like Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King “and all the people who stuck their necks out at that time”.
Burgie’s love for music surfaced while serving in Asia during World War II and he went on to study at the Julliard School of Music in New York, the University of Southern California and the University of Arizona. Today, he is an inductee into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, New York, and has received honorary doctorate degrees, including a Doctor of Letters degree from the University of the West Indies.
Burgie’s mother has long passed but his Barbadian matriarchal ties remain strong and he continues to follow the progress of the island and wishes Barbados well.
“I still have family here,” he says, with whom he remains in touch through his frequent visits to the island. Since 1980 he has given a schools’ literary prize in honour of his mother that is now administered by the National Cultural Foundation.
He is writing the script for a movie which he has aptly named Day-O in which he plans to ask Barbadian international singing sensation Rihanna to play the lead role. This is the only major project occupying his time and interest for now. Widowed, the father of one son indicated he no longer had the kind of stamina which sustained him throughout the writing of so many songs whose royalties are now his main source of support. He has done well and he is grateful.
Burgie said that whenever he hears the Barbados National Anthem being sung, “I feel very proud.”