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Callaloo 25.2 (2002) 620-638
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There Goes the Transnational Neighborhood
Calypso Buys a Bungalow
Sly Mongoose . . . Wouldn't stop and he reach America
—Trinidad-born vaudevillian Sam Manning's
1925 version of an old Jamaican mento
I live in a place where, in the early 1900s, the Craftsman ideal took hold as it did in few other places in North America. Today, a good seventy years after its heyday and its eventual eclipse by postwar ticky-tacky, the California Bungalow is still the state's pre-eminent style of domestic architecture. From one end of California to the other, craftsman cottages blanket the urban and rural landscapes; in Pasadena and the Berkeley Hills, Greene and Greene's showpieces—apotheoses of the genre—have become holy shrines for Arts and Crafts pilgrims; and in my small college town, way up north behind the Redwood Curtain, well-preserved bungalows are so prized by a certain breed of middle-class refugee from the south that they fetch sums well above their already-inflated asking prices.
From its inception in William Morris's industrialized England, of course, the Arts and Crafts movement was about nostalgia for a lost organic past; and so the bungalow, avatar of this Arcadian never-neverland, has for several generations symbolized an escape, albeit a rather compromised and disingenuous one, from the depredations of the modern world. Its calculatedly homey appeal may be largely what my new neighbors (not to mention those legions who were so recently snapping up "Mission Oak" repros everywhere from upmarket Restoration Hardware to downscale K-Mart) are buying into, then. Still, the northerly flight of these migrants of means—from something they euphemize vaguely as "congestion," or if pressed, "crime"—points indirectly to another, less homespun, of California's late distinctions: its much-ballyhooed ballot measures of the 1990s restricting immigration, rolling back affirmative action, and (briefly) ending bilingual education. Thus, with the Golden State in the vanguard, did the American nation begin working through another in a series of demographically-inspired identity crises. 1
The nature of the work being carried out here, and the sometimes hysterical tone of its execution, invite us to be careful readers of similar moments in the past. Since the underlying anxieties of this latest crisis are often expressed publicly as worries over broadening (and, it's implied, divisive) cultural differences, for instance, it [End Page 620] should be instructive to recall how America's relations with an earlier generation of dark-skinned immigrants were mediated precisely through the transmission and reception of culture—specifically, and surprisingly, through calypso, an urban vernacular performance genre whose sophisticated poetics have not been widely appreciated outside the Caribbean. In this essay, however, I'm interested not so much in calypso's poetic pedigree as in its elucidation of a forgotten, cross-cultural episode, a critical moment in the evolution of modern mass culture when calypso was at the nexus of another odd conjunction of racial tension, immigrant paranoia, and nostalgia for bungalows. I'm concerned, that is, with interpreting calypso's attempted intervention into American pop culture of the 1930s, and its mixed success in getting a grip on the slippery process by which people—particularly immigrants—of color are assimilated into the American body politic.
In the spring of 1934, two relatively obscure Trinidadian entertainers, who'd come to New York City to put the carnival season's top calypsos on wax (for the first time ever), suddenly found themselves flirting with international celebrity. Their co-sponsors, a radio and phonograph merchant in Port of Spain and a Trinidadian bandleader based in New York, had formed a long-distance partnership to exploit what they hoped would be a dual audience for recorded calypso: a well-heeled "colored" bourgeoisie back home, and a sizeable pan-Caribbean emigrant class in New York. For its part the American Record Corporation (soon to become the quasi-independent U.S. arm of British-based Decca), having leapt into the "race" records market just when it and the record trade in general had rather precipitously bottomed...