“Not a woman ever complain yet with me. Ah eh boastin’ but ah know ah got true ability/durability. And if a woman ever say that I ever leave her dissatisfy, she lie, she lie, she lie, she blasted lie.”
And there is a fairly long list of women who may have had cause to complain, having been in—and out of—Sparrow’s life or having merely come in for (often dis)honourable mention. We clearly are not referring here to Slinger Francisco but to Sparrow qua bard and self-styled Village Ram with a string of now familiar aliases.
An alphabetical sample of some of the named women makes interesting reading: Betty Lou and Mary of “Both of Them;” the unnamed Country Girl; Dorothy; Doudou Yemi; Eve; Jane; Jennifer; Lucy of “Water the Garden;” Mae Mae; Marajhin; Marajhin’s sister; Marajhin’s cousin; Margarita from Mexico; Maria; Melda of “Obeah Wedding;” Mildred of “Mr Bendwood Dick;” Miss Universe; Miss Ruby; Miss World; Monica Doudou; Natasha; Patsy; Princess Margaret; Rose; Rosemary Walker of “Good morning, Mr Walker;” Roslyn of “Going Home Tonight;” Sandra; Stella; Teacher Mildred of “The Lizard;” the two white women of “Congo Man;” Vanessa; and Winer Girl (from Princes Town).
And, of course, never a respecter of persons or a worshipper of sacred cows, Sparrow also manages to include on the list, thanks to “Phillip, My Dear,” England’s Queen Elizabeth II. However, he stops short of suggesting that he was the man who was “lingay like you but harder, (…) laylay like you but badder” and “who came on the bed, doudou, and I take him for you.”
Modesty, it goes without saying, has never been Sparrow’s strong suit; that quality simply doesn’t go with being the Village Ram and the Calypso King of the World. So it comes as no surprise to hear Sparrow declare in the opening line of his “Bag Ah Sugar:” “Even a fortune teller couldn’t tell you more ‘bout woman than me. Doh care how ah woman clever, ah sure ah smarter than she.”
“If she smile with dimples on she cheek,” the shared expertise says, “and then she laugh and she have open teeth, doh leh she get away; she have a bag ah sugar down dey.”
And there’s more shared expertise about women in “The Big, Big Bamboo:” “Ever since the world began, woman was always fooling man. But they found out women were always true to the man they know who could jam them (…) with the big bamboo.”
For all his professed expertise, however, Sparrow seems strangely uncomfortable in the presence of women who are – metaphorically, of course! – fully clothed. In “Crawfie,” his tribute to Hasely Crawford, who won 100m gold in Montreal in 1976 (“They say through a shortcut Crawfie pass”), and in “Sir Garfield Sobers,” which honours Sir (years before the actual knighthood) Garfield Sobers, “the greatest cricketer on Earth or Mars,” he seems to pull no punches and his admiration knows no bounds.
But although he was at the height of his ample powers in the 1970s, few are arguably able to recall his seemingly perfunctory tributes to Jennifer Hosten, “Miss World,” and “Miss Universe,” Janelle Penny Commissiong. Neither compares very favourably with Kitchener’s older but much more rousing “Miss Sweden” (“Bring out the cheers for coming first, Miss Sweden is the queen of the universe.”)
Curiously, though, when Sparrow sang about another beauty queen who was stripped of her title after nude pictures of her surfaced in a popular magazine, he asks “sexy Vanessa” to understand that he remains her greatest fan. “I’m upset with you,” he says, “(…) not for what you do but cause is not me you do it with.” And to see him perform “Vanessa” live, arms and legs spread wide at the appropriate moment, is to be left in no doubt about the extent of the bard’s lasciviousness.
If he does not handle praising women well, he is in his element, it seems, when contempt is the required mode. His “Lying Excuses” underscores his complete lack of respect—feigned, one feels—for his partner’s intelligence. But there’s much worse. He consistently refuses to take no for an answer.
It does not help that none of his would-be partners is brave enough to ask, like the “woman” in Black Prince’s “The Letter,” for a recommendation “from your last ‘oman (…) with two passport picture.”
Of course, given what we have already seen, it’s no surprise that Prince’s “woman” turns out not to be a woman after all!
Only a handful of Sparrow’s women, often treated as mere chattel, have what it takes to resist his overtures. The unnamed “Country girl” is eventually betrayed by her mother who, shades of Elaine’s mother, attempts to silence her justifiable fears with the assurance that “Sparrow is a decent stranger; he won’t go too far.”
And in a rare display of scruples, Sparrow declines to accede to 22-year-old Stella’s repeated urgings to give her a few drinks and find out “who taking advantage of who.”
Once more showing unwonted scruples, the Birdie tells Patsy that “Yuh too small; you go make mih feel like a brute.” She, however, insists that “if anybody too small is you.”
“She wasn’t telling lies,” he eventually confides to us. “Yuh know little Patsy was talking the truth.”
When Sparrow attempts to keep things in the family, Marajhin’s cousin seems quite accommodating but Marajhin’s sister is less so. “If you touch my latimangay,” she threatens, “cutlass go pass.”
Saltfish of the Earth
The Gospel according to Saint Matthew tells us in chapter 5, verse 13, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
We shall see that Sparrow is perhaps a little conflicted when faced with Matthew’s admonition. He is clear on the middle part, it seems, about the loss of saltiness but it is a moot question whether he agrees with the “It is no longer good for anything” bit. But we shall return to that issue later on. And to Matthew.
For now, though, let us be clear that, generally speaking, where his relationships are concerned, Sparrow is in charge and completely contemptuous of any complaints or objections coming from the distaff side. He dismisses Teresa as little more than a gold digger: “Yuh wuss than a dog, Teresa, gyul yuh break mih heart. This morning yuh take mih money, now yuh playing smart.”
The pretty lil Martiniquais gyal of “Sa Sa Yea” is just a notch above that (“Ah tell she ah go pay fuh she but she have to spend the night with me”) as are Monica Doudou (“I have to depend on mih seaman friend; when mih seaman friend bring a friend is then ah have cash to spend”) and Jean Marabunta (“In the days of round the Savannah, she would say yes for a banana.”)
Elaine’s mother in “Elaine and Harry” is made to look pretty pathetic but money is not the problem. “He could eat by your sister or your Aunty Gertrude,” she tells her daughter who is complaining to her about Sparrow’s insatiable appetite, “otherwise I mihself would give him yuh father food.”
Hunger is also the problem in “Sell the Pussy.” “Well, ah hungry and ah more broken than a louse,” Sparrow begins, “It eh ha’ nothing left for me to pawn in the house.”
But he has a ready solution to the problem. Unabashedly, he tells his girlfriend to “sell the pussy and bring all the cash to me. Ah love yuh, baby, but ah cyar remain hungry. This starvation gotta finish just like that but you got to sell the pussy, sell the pussy cat.”
Lesser mortals, like Blakie in “Hold the pussy cat,” strive hard to keep both possible meanings plausible throughout. The Calypso King of the World, however, deliberately destroys the double entendre of “Sell the pussy.” By Verse Three.
“Yuh could help out if yuh sell till I start to work,” he sings. “And I promise yuh wouldn’t have to sell for more than a year or two. By then ah should have enough cash to buy three pussy for you.”
It is worth comparing Sparrow’s use of synecdoche in “Sell the Pussy” with what he does in and with “Saltfish.” This calypso is a masterpiece of metonymy in which maidens and matrons alike are melted down and merged into mere midsections. But it is as performance art that “Saltfish” really sparkles.
Theatre lovers who have not seen Sparrow perform either “Saltfish” or “Congo man” or both should feel an immense sense of loss; watching the reaction of the women in the audience, I am always reminded of Sacha Guitry’s fine quip that “les honnêtes femmes sont inconsolables des fautes qu’elles n’ont pas commises.”
Loosely translated—without the elegance of the original prose—it means there’s nothing you can say to a woman who’s always done the right thing to make up for the wrong things she has not done.
To hear Sparrow tell it, there is no worse wrong thing a woman can do than selling the pussy, at any rate, without his permission. Or even perhaps, some say, without his active participation. For nowhere is Sparrow more scathing than in his scornful dismissal of the peers of Jean and Dinah, Rosita and Clementina, those jamettes who sit below the salt and sell their saltfish.
His “Keep the City Clean” tells us that he thinks he should get the job to clean up Port-of-Spain, which is what the City Council is proposing to do. His recommendation is that, if they are serious, they get rid of Gateway Elaine, whose realm is Charlotte Street, as well as Big Eye Jane and Big Eye Merle, Spotty Foot Pearl, Stinkin’ Toe Sheila, Broad Zip Mouth and One Breast Angela.
Here is the telling chorus: “They should hold Marabunta Jean and then hold Picky Head Eileen and then hold Stinkin’ Mouth Doreen if they want to keep the city clean.”
Of 1965 vintage, Sparrow’s “Congo Man” is reported to have been criticized for its attitudes toward women and banned from radio airplay until 1989. But mindful of the words of Matthew 10:31, which says “Fear ye not, therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows,” women may well feel confident of getting their revenge one day when the “Sparrow Dead” prediction by two gossipmongers, Big Mouth Lillian and Big Belly Angie, finally comes through.
There is a claim that the names of these ten ladies of the night should be added to the earlier list of Sparrow’s “conquests.” And in the same vein, there are those who hold—without a shred of evidence but without refutation, mind you, so far–that Sparrow’s determination to get rid of these ladies is a way of biting the hands that fed (feed?) him. But my preferred explanation is that an encounter with a strange man irrevocably shaped Sparrow’s subsequent attitude to women.
The man’s name? Mr Bendwood Dick.