Sunday, March 11, 2007

Joshua Gone Barbados. Eric Gone, Too.(v2)


Eric von Schmidt, a painter and folksinger, died February 2, 2007 in Connecticut. Bob Dylan wrote of him that “He could sing the bird off the wire and the rubber off the tire, he can separate the men from the boys and the note from the noise". But why should that be of interest to people in St. Vincent? Because his most recorded and most famous song, "Joshua Gone Barbados", is about an incident that happened near Georgetown:

"Joshua Gone Barbados".

"Cane standing in the fields getting old and red
Lot of misery in Georgetown, three men lying dead
And Joshua, head of the government, he say strike for better pay
Cane cutters are striking, Joshua gone away.

Chorus: Joshua gone Barbados, staying in a big hotel
People on St. Vincent they got many sad tales to tell.

Sugar mill owner told the strikers, I don't need you to cut my cane
Bring in another bunch of fellows, strike be all in vain.
Get a bunch of tough fellows, bring 'em from Sion Hill
Bring 'em in a bus to Georgetown, know somebody get killed.

And Sonny Child the overseer, I swear he's an ignorant man
Walking through the canefield, pistol in his hand
But Joshua gone Barbados, just like he don't know
People on the Island, they got no place to go.

Police giving protection, new fellows cutting the cane
Strikers can't do nothing, strike be all in vain
And Sonny Child he curse the strikers, wave his pistol 'round
They're beating Sonny with a cutlass, beat him to the ground.

Chorus 2:There's a lot of misery in Georgetown,
you can hear the women bawl
Joshua gone Barbados, he don't care at all.

Cane standing in the fields getting old and red
Sonny Child in the hospital, pistol on his bed
I wish I could go to England, Trinidad or Curacao
People on the Island they got no place to go.

When I looked carefully at the lyrics they struck me as being out of character, but to a large extent they are accurate. Vivian Child, who was, at the time, a government doctor married to Sonny Child, tells us that although the strike was not on the sugar estate Sonny and his sister owned, he had organized the landowners to confront the strikers. Sonny was impetuous and always arrived early, so he was alone when he confronted the strikers and was, as the song says, "beat to the ground" by the flats of the cutlasses. By the time he got out of Kingstown hospital two weeks later things had settled down and the sugar was being harvested. In later years the crop had changed to bananas and sugar is no longer a commercial crop in St. Vincent. Now the international economy of the banana industry has changed and St. Vincent has to find another cash crop.

The tune to Joshua Gone Barbados has a nice caribbean beat, which has made it very popular. It has been recorded several times and versions are still current:
Eric Von Schmidt recorded a versions in 1964 with Geoff Muldaur and Mel Lyman, and again in 1971, the latter being rereleased in 2004, and again in 1995 with Linda Clifford,

Tom Rush recorded a version in 1966, and again in 2001. It has appeared more than once on collections, most recently in February 2007,

Howie Bursen recorded a version in 1980,

Brendan Croker recorded a version in 1987,

Johnny Cash recorded a version with Hoyt Axton in 1983,

A group calleed Buick 6 recorded it in 1990,

Bob Dylan recorded a version in 1992 on his "Basement Tapes",

Dave Van Ronk recorded a version in 1994,

Sally Timms and John Langford recorded it in 2000,

Fourtold, a quartette of Steve Gillette, Cindy Mangsen, Anne Mills and Michael Smith, recorded a version in 2005.

Bill Kaffenberger also recorded a version in 2005,

Other singers, like James Taylor and Nancy Griffith, have it in their performance repertoire, but haven't recorded it. Some of these versions can be found on iTunes or eMusic. I have had emails which show that it still is active in many singer's repertoires. There are probably many people who know nothing about St. Vincent except what they hear in the song.

A couple of years ago I tried to find out about the song, and the situation that provided its context, without much success. Then, after his death, someone quoted what Eric had written when the song appeared in the 50th Anniversary volume of "Sing Out", the folk music magazine, in June 1967.

"Joshua is his last name. He was swept into office in 1960 when England's move to dump some of her poor small islands coincided with the wave of Caribbean nationalism following Castro's move in Cuba. Like Castro's followers, Joshua's supporters also grew beards, meager tufts, scanty sideburns, trimmed with all the self-consciousness of Jaycees at a Frontier Day cookout. But Joshua, slightly poor and very black, had his followers in his pocket. He became Prime Minister of St. Vincent.

In the year following his inauguration land taxes rose astronomically. These new levies merely reduced the comfortable profits of the plantation owners but were ruinous to the poor whose property was seized daily. The revenue was used for such projects as sending Joshua and his ministers (they prudently exempted themselves from all taxes) on jolly world-wide Goodwill junkets. If to the outsider there was a comic opera quality to the island ("Porgy And Bess" as revised by Gilbert and Sullivan), to the poorer Vincentians it was a cruelly serious matter.

Joshua's biggest campaign pitch had been to back a strike by the island's biggest labor and voting force -- the miserably paid cane cutters. When the showdown came, in the spring of 1962, he simply got out on his yacht, and split for Barbados. His time in high office had given him new insights into the Problems of Sugar Mill Owners, the Complexities of Free Enterprise, the Realities of Diminishing British Aid. He was tired. He was chicken. So the government did nothing.

Strikebreakers were recruited in the tough Sion Hill section above Kingston and brought up to Georgetown in wooden-sided buses with funny names. The new men began work. Fights broke out, sometimes brother against brother or son against father. Police were brought in to protect the strikebreakers, who could cut only in guarded fields. Every man carried his razor-sharp machette (called a cutless on the islands), and many on both sides were drunk. Sonny Childs, the head overseer and a very unpopular white man with more courage than brains, walked into one of the unprotected fields and came out feet first. The leaders of the strike were quickly arrested, the others dispersed, and word came from the hospital that Sonny had sworn to shoot the men who had beaten him. Their strike failed.

I had been away from St. Vincent for a few weeks and returned just at the end of it. The song is based on the events as told me by Norma Duncan of Calliqua. No one was killed in the uprising, but at that time rumor was rampant and Norma thought that two strikers and a policeman had been killed in a gunfight in Georgetown. Norma is a fine singer and a wonderful person. I would like to dedicate this song to her."

What sounded wrong about the lyrics also sounded wrong about this description. "When the showdown came, in the spring of 1962, he simply got out on his yacht, and split for Barbados." That did not sound characteristic of Joshua, who didn't even have a car and rode to work in one of the "wooden-sided buses with funny names" if he wasn't walking or riding his bicycle. A friend told about reading the newspaper for a nearly blind Joshua when he was a child. Joshua was living in a rundown house but refused to move to the new apartment his son had built. He would say "I reach out this arm to get tea, and this arm to get sugar. Anyplace else and I'd die."

One of the comments on Joshua on the internet said: "Ebenezer Theodore Joshua was very much loved by the poor and hard-working people of his homeland.  He is regarded by many Vincentians as a champion of the working class and is a national hero of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  As Chief Minister, he defended the rights of Vincentians and spoke out against outside and colonial rule.  Many of the rights and benefits we enjoy were brought about while Joshua was Chief Minister.  Some of the rights and benefits include: Holidays with pay, Increases in wages, Protection against eviction by insensitive land owners, Freedom to practice religion and Protection against child labour"

Unlike many Caribbean politicians, Joshua died poor. So it is very unlikely that Joshua had a "yacht" to slip away on. I got an email from Vere Palmer, which said "You are correct: Joshua didn't have a boat, but one of his ministers did. Flick Haynes - I think that’s his name,lived in the Calliqua area, and later retired in Barbados."

One correspondent on the internet said: " My late father Dr. Richard Bond paid Ebenezer Joshua to visit Barbados once for a regional agronomy meeting and so I wonder if that is the visit the American singer is complaining about." Since Joshua was as interested in getting St. Vincent out of sugar as Ralph Gonzalves, the current Prime Minister, is interested in getting St. Vincent out of bananas, that would have been an appropriate meeting to go to. It would have been in character for Joshua, who had no money of his own, not to spend government money on such a trip. It is also entirely possible that Joshua would have gone on an inter-island freight schooner rather than some more expensive transportation. Those schooners were still in business when we first came to St. Vincent.

But it is less likely that the trip the elder Bond paid for was the one referred to in the song. 1962 was a bad year for labor in the British Caribbean. There were labor disturbances in various places in the Caribbean and Latin America. But the colonies in the Lesser Antilles had been organized in a federation as preparation for independence. Joshua was a fiercely anti-colonial politician and in favor of the federation. Unfortunately, Jamaica and Trinidad realized that they had the strongest economies of the ten islands, so they would be providing the most support for the federation and getting the least out of it. They pulled out of the federation. The British dissolved the federation in May of 1962, but before they did the "Little 8", the federation without Trinidad and Jamaica, held a meeting in Barbados just at the time that the strike occurred. Given a choice, I believe Joshua would have gone to Barbados to try to preserve what he saw as the path to independence rather than use the very limited powers of a colonial administration to prolong a hopeless strike. At this point we may argue over the decision in terms of the long view, and St. Vincent didn't become independent until 1979, but I don't think the situation was one of Joshua heartlessly abandoning the strikers for his own pleasure and profit. It was a conflict between two "goods" and the strikers had the lower priority. In the end no one won.

However, while there are incorrect details, and the attitude toward Joshua is likely to be from a leftwing position while Joshua was moderating (positions in Caribbean politics still being expressed somewhat strongly from a northern viewpoint) the song is not grossly inaccurate. Joshua was trying to find a practical solution to a problem that was bigger than a single Caribbean nation could handle -- a situation that is not unlike the global economy today -- and that can easily be seen as a betrayal from an ideological leftwing position.

From the historical viewpoint, however, and considering the the major problem in the Caribbean was how to be anti-colonial without courting disaster, we could well be more sympathetic toward Joshua than Eric Von Schmidt was prepared to be.

By October of 1962 an american spy plane had discovered guided missiles in Cuba aimed at the United States, and we came as close to a global nuclear war as we have in my lifetime. We managed to get through that crisis, but nobody wanted to deal with Caribbean politics for a while afterward.

I will submit this to The Vincentian for local publication, and put it on my St. Vincent blog [] and send it to a few people who have expressed interest. If anyone who reads this has any more information or recollections of matters relating to the song, E. T. Joshua or Sonny Child and the strikers, please send an email to [].