‘Poor But Ambitious’

Let me confess here that I have long had a love of Classic Calypso. I’m referring specifically to the lively and witty Trinidadian music recorded before the Second World War. Before anyone discovered that they could get music by banging on an oil drum, before Harry Belafonte sang about banana boats, there were remarkable calypsonians: Atilla the Hun (Raymond Quevedo), Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon), King Radio (Norman Span), Growling Tiger (Neville Marcano), and many others.

I never would have begun my journey of musical exploration had I not first found a scratchy and almost unplayable Camden LP that somehow lodged itself among the family’s record collection. It was free-range vinyl, shorn of its sleeve, rubbing abrasively up against other records in the cabinet. Until I was about 20, I never even thought to play it. I must have been expecting Belafonte-esque pop. What I heard instead captivated me.

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The needle skipped all over the surface, so I put my finger on the cartridge to get the selections to play through. But in so doing I discovered the curiously fascinating lopsided stanzas of Wilmoth Houdini. The bizarre scansion and weird syllable stresses drove me nuts—but I couldn’t not listen. And here he was, name-checking Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo, and Paul Whiteman!

Wilmoth Houdini
Wilmoth Houdini (Photo Gottlieb)

Little did I know that Houdini (born Frederick Wilmoth Hendricks), who came to New York in 1927 and made his career there, was somewhat derided by the calypsonians who remained in Trinidad. They had what we today would call a “rap battle,” conducted through phonograph records. They claimed he was stealing their stuff for US consumption, and he issued a “Declaration of War.” (Of course, there were genuine cases of plagiarism, as when Morey Amsterdam lifted Lord Invader’s “Rum and Coca-Cola.” It took ages for the case to be settled and seven years after that for Lord Invader—Rupert Westmore Grant—to receive his settlement check.)

Despite the opinion of certain of my eminent musician friends who can’t tune their ears to old-time Calypso’s unruly vitality, I’m besotted with the songs I first heard on that scratchy album. Among them is the remarkable “Poor But Ambitious,” recorded in 1940. I love it so much, and its message speaks to me so personally, that I wrote what I hope is a respectful paraphrase about two years ago—and it now feels more pertinent than ever. I’ve tried to capture Wilmoth Houdini’s delightfully idiosyncratic scansion and word-stresses; the original may readily be heard on YouTube for comparison.

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Poor But Ambitious (2019 Rewrite by Andy Senior)

Too proud to beg, too honest to steal—
Subscribers, please listen to my appeal;
I’m too proud to beg too honest to steal—
Subscribers, please listen to my appeal;
Night and day I’m pounding the keys
Editing words to print on dead trees;
Kindhearted subscribers, my case is up to you:
Now’s the time to renew.

I’m not asking for mere Facebook sympathy,
To raise some cold cash with a GoFundMe;
To Kickstart a loan for a brand new car
Or repair my soffits (whatever they are);
I just want to fill up the printed page
With miles of syncopated verbi-age;
Kindhearted subscribers, my case is up to you:
Now’s the time to renew.

From the day when I learned to type
My father said my writing was tripe;
He spoke to me confidentially
Saying “The older you get, the better you’ll be;
And when you publish your Synco Times
People will forget all your other crimes.”
Kindhearted subscribers, my case is up to you:
Now’s the time to renew.

The reason why I’m appealing to you:
I’m all alone with a big job to do;
My jazz paper is one of a kind
And its circulation is much on my mind;
For forty dollars it comes to your door—
How could anybody ask for more?
Kindhearted subscribers, my case is up to you:
Now’s the time to renew.

I’m not the publisher Conde Nast
By Jeff Bezos I’m greatly surpassed;
People, this may come as a shock:
I’m not A.G. Sulzberger or Rupert Murdoch;
The Syncopated Times is what I do
And I would love to send it to you—
For everyone was born to be free and to be happy
And syncopate periodic’ly.

Andy Senior is the Publisher of The Syncopated Times and on occasion he still gets out a Radiola! podcast for our listening pleasure.

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