Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Another Skaturday Night (and I Ain't Got No Trilby)


Audio Transcript

Welcome to another episode of Get the Word! everyone. This one’s for all you skins and rudies out there. It’s about the origin of the word ‘ska’.

Ska is a type of music with a very danceable beat. Some of the distinctive elements of the ska rhythm are a walking bass line, an uptempo speed and a strong offbeat which you can hear in the background of this episode today.

Let’s get a little background first before we try to pinpoint who coined this term.

Before we begin our journey, I highly recommend that you head on over to the English Sessions website for the transcript of this episode, where I will be sprinkling in many different video clips as we explore ska today.

So where did this music get started and who were some of the pioneers of the genre?

Let’s travel back in time to the end of the first half of the 20th century. More specifically to the Caribbean island of Jamaica. At this time, we started to see advancements in radio broadcasting, which pushed American airwaves over to the Caribbean, including to Jamaica. If they knew which frequency to turn their dial to, the people of Jamaica could pick up some of the sounds coming out of American radio stations in places like Miami and New Orleans.



They would have been hearing all sorts of sounds at the time coming into their radios, including bebop, soul, swing… and American rhythm and blues including the New Orleans based Fats Domino, an underrated pioneer of early rock and roll and an artist that many consider to be an influence on ska, specifically with his release Be My Guest, from 1959, which had a very similar offbeat rhythm that would eventually be associated with the ska rhythm. Another major influence was the shuffling rhythm of American pianist Rosco Gordon, from Memphis, Tennessee.



So the Jamaicans were hip to these exciting new sounds coming across the water and sunk their teeth in, at a time when even parts of the USA were still cut off from these developments in music happening in other parts of their own country. This brought about the age of sound systems in Jamaica. DJs in Jamaica were able to get their hands on American records, and set up these sound systems with nothing more than a rudimentary echo chamber, a microphone, turntable and a bank of speakers. Some of these DJs, such as Prince Buster and Duke Reid, would become major names in ska, as they were shaping what the Jamaican ska sound would become with the record selections they favored at these early sound systems.



It wouldn’t be long before Jamaican artists started recording their own unique version of these rhythms, influenced as well by Caribbean music such as mento, a type of Jamaican dance music popular at the time. One theory of the birth of ska involves Prince Buster and the inaugural recording session for his new record label Wild Bells, a session which was financed by the previously mentioned Duke Reid. In these early recordings, you can certainly hear the distinctive offbeat rhythm of ska as well as African-influenced Jamaican drumming and chanting. I recommend that everyone go check out Oh Carolina, by the Folkes Brothers, a recording which, my research tells me, comes from this influential first recording session that Prince Buster produced, which would have been in 1960. It can’t go without mention that this early ska recording also featured Count Ossie on drums, who was associated with the Rastafarians of Jamaica who, at the time, were considered to be social outcasts who were often feared and scorned. 

One source telling the story of these early recordings with the Folkes Brothers and Count Ossie tells us that the song, Oh Carolina, was actually released in late 1959 and was a major hit in the dancehalls, where the song would play 15 times in a single evening. The radio stations couldn’t ignore the momentum of this record, Oh Carolina, and started transmitting the song to the masses, but with a warning. John Folkes of the Folkes Brothers, reflecting on the airplay of Oh Carolina, tells us that it was a very controversial song. He went on to say: “(it was) the first song throughout the whole history of Jamaica that gave the Rastafarian movement respectability, and it did it in a subtle way.”

Subtle because the song had no Rastafarian message, but featured the drums and drumming style associated with Rastafarianism, this controversial movement from the hills, on the fringes of Jamaican society. These drums were the symbols of protest and didn’t represent colonized Jamaica or its British invaders. The song gave the Rastafarian movement more influence and awareness. The rise of Jamaican ska, with its earliest roots steeped in African influenced roots music and Rastafarianism, coincided with the celebratory feelings around Jamaica’s independence from the UK in 1962 and led to an exciting and energetic time for music in Jamaica.

Some of the most notable ska artists that emerged from the first wave of ska in Jamaica include Ernest Ranglin, Bryon Lee and Derrick Morgan, all of whom are involved in the several theories of the origin of the term ‘ska’. After the break, we’ll get into these theories. Stick around.

— Break —

Before the break I mentioned several names closely tied to the origins of ska. But who was the first person to actually say the word in reference to this emerging sound? The Encyclopedia Britannica tells us that, at the very least, it’s an imitative sound, an onomatopoeia, just like last week’s word, crow (two weeks ago). One of the names I mentioned, Ernest Ranglin, who worked closely with many other ska greats, including Prince Buster, and the Skatalites, claims that he invented the quote ‘ska chop’, which you can hear in Fats Domino’s Be My Guest and other American rhythm and blues from the 50s, but which is definitely in more of the foreground with ska. One source references Ranglin as saying that the term was coined by musicians to quote ”talk about the skat! skat! skat! scratchin’ guitar strum…”.  At one of these early influential sessions, featuring Ernest Ranglin and his double bassist, Cluett Johnson, according to one source, Johnson, borrowing a catch phrase from jazz player Silm Gaillard, told Ranglin to “play like ska, ska, ska”. Ranglin denies this, and when asked about it, responded by saying “Clue (Cluett Johnson) couldn’t tell me what to play!”.

Prince Buster also claims to have coined the term, saying it was an abbreviation of the word ‘scatter’, but he may or may not have had a reputation for stealing credit. Going back to the John Folkes interview I referenced earlier, when talking about the sessions that produced Oh Carolina as well as the flip side, Met a Man, Folkes was adamant in alleging that Prince Buster “stole my song, went ahead and published and produced it without honoring the oral agreement he had with me and exploiting it throughout the years without my permission .” Buster’s moral framework was perhaps tenuous at best. Just give a listen to his very catchy, but rather sexist, Ten Commandments (From Man to Woman) released in 1967.



Here’s another theory. Back to Cluett Johnson, the bass player who recorded with Ranglin and also led his own group, Clue J and His Blues Blasters. Johnson is mentioned in a little anecdote from Lloyd Brevett, a fellow bassplayer and founding member of The Skatalites. In a 1997 interview, he says to the interviewer “We started to play ska, but we never really name it. But we play ska. Guitar, ‘ska, ska ska’. One guy … used to come to the studio used to say, ‘Wha-up, Skavoovie’. That guy was Cluett Johnson, bass player, joking guy’. ‘Wha-up, Skavoovie?’ He came there so regular and talk skavoovie, that together with the guitar, ‘ska ska ska,’ that named the music ska. Yeah. That is it.”

Jackie Mittoo, another member of The Skatalites, insisted, according to Sebastien Clarke who wrote Jah Music, that the word ‘ska’ didn’t come from the musicians in these early sessions (who he said was actually calling it ‘staya staya’) but rather that Byron Lee, who I mentioned before, introduced the word ‘ska’. Byron Lee headed the band the Dragonaires, who you can see featured in the 1964 documentary This is Ska! (the entirety of which is part of the show notes today on the English Sessions website). Also featured in that fascinating glimpse into Jamaican ska are legends Jimmy Cliff and Toots and the Maytals, as well as Prince Buster.



I must include one more very memorable quote from Derrick Morgan, who also recorded in 1959 with Duke Reid and was half of the duo Derrick and Patsy, alongside Millicent Patsy Todd. Morgan’s quote: “Ska started by, well, we are trying to make a rhythm and blues song. We were imitating songs from Louis Jordan, this kind of rhythm that they play. We imitating Louis Jordan, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair, Rosco Gordon … These were the songs we were trying to make in Jamaica. When we didn’t get the real blues style, we have a guitar strum that give a different type of sound. Guitar and the piano making a ska sound, like ‘ska, ska’, that’s why we call it ska. The sound of the guitar and the piano, that’s why we give it the name ska!’.



Ska would eventually lead to other Jamaican genres like rocksteady and reggae, and would have a major influence on music around the world, including a second wave of ska, Two-Tone ska, that emerged out of the UK in the late 70s, and a third wave in the 80s that brought us ska bands from every corner of the globe, including The Busters in Germany, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs from Argentina and the rise of J-ska in Japan.

Make sure to head on over to the English Sessions website for the show notes of this episode, where you can find several links to songs I’ve mentioned in this episode, including the Derrick and Patsy recording of Let The Good Times Roll, which is a cover of the fantastic American duo Shirley and Lee, who were also influential in the formation of the ska sound.





— Fact Cabinet —

That sound means we’re opening up the Fact Cabinet. This won’t be hard to find ska related items in my fact cabinet, as I’m personally a pretty big fan. In fact, as a teenager I was in a ska band called The LeVar BurTones, a fact which probably must have sounded very strange to actress Susan Gibney (Crossing Jordan / Happy Family / We Are Still Here) from whom I briefly took acting lessons in my twenties in Webster, New York. You see, at the time, I thought, for whatever reason, that this nugget of Rochester, NY ska trivia was something that she would find interesting. She acted with LeVar Burton on Star Trek as Dr. Leah Brahms and even had an intimate scene with him where she kisses him, on the lips! If I remember correctly, I received a slight look of confusion and that was about it. A lasting reminder for me of how real human people can become larger than life pop culture icons, to some, like nerdy ska kids, but remain most assuredly real, tangible individuals to others. Shout outs to Susan Gibney, and LeVar Burton, the only person who should be hosting Jeopardy going forward. Hands down.


 
Anyway, Fact Cabinet. Ahh, a prized possession. An original copy of I just Can’t Stop It, the debut album by English two-tone ska band the Beat released in 1980 on Go-Feet Records. Did you know that this album was released in the US on Sire Records that same year, but under the name The English Beat. In Australia, it was released under the band name The British Beat! You can find all three album covers online. I guess I grew up with The English Beat because I’m not from the UK. Interestingly enough, after The Beat decided to call it quits are 3 albums, guitarist Dave Wakeling decided to continue touring under The English Beat playing mostly US clubs, while vocalist Ranking Roger continued to tour as The Beat in Europe. After the breakup of the original lineup of The Beat, members of The Beat joined with Birmingham based singer Tony Beet (BEET), and formed The International Beat, which lasted for a few years into the 90s. I guess at that point they wanted to have all their markets covered with just one band name.

Ok, this next item really set me back. It’s the 1961 Vauxhall Cresta that is featured in the music video for the classic song Ghost Town by The Specials. You better believe I look stylish riding down the street in this beauty... when it runs. Let’s see if I can start it up. — car putters and dies — I can’t believe I spent my entire life savings on this pile of junk. 

Anyway, let’s talk about the song Ghost Town for a minute. Ghost Town, which spent three weeks at number one and 10 weeks total in the top 40 of the UK Singles Chart back in 1981 may, at first listen, seem like a song written for Halloween, with its minor key arrangement, and eerie organ, not to mention the wailing chorus, but this song wasn’t written just to be spooky. It was actually written in response to social issues in the UK at the time, including unemployment, violence and urban decay. As a response to rising unemployment and frustration around an aggressive economic policy under the helm of Margaret Thatcher, 1981 saw riots and protests all over parts of the UK. Hardest hit by unemployment were people from the African-Caribbean community, the same community who brought ska to the UK and helped form the two-tone second wave.

Ghost town features lyrics like these:
“Government leaving the youth on the shelf
This place, is coming like a ghost town
No job to be found in this country
Can’t go on no more
The people getting angry”

The Specials, who were socially conscious, and also had both black and white members, were perfectly positioned to capture the voice of frustration being felt at the time. As one writer put it, “For the first and only time, British pop music appeared to be commenting on the news as it happened. “Specials member Jerry Dammers once said in an interview “… the country was falling apart. You travelled from town to town and what was happening was terrible. In Liverpool, all the shops were shuttered up, everything was closing down. Margaret Thatcher had apparently gone mad, she was closing down all the industries, throwing millions of people on the dole. We could actually see it by touring around. You could see that frustration and anger in the audience. In Glasgow, there were these little old ladies on the streets selling all their household goods, their cups and saucers. It was unbelievable. It was clear that something was very, very wrong."



Ghost Town would end up being a prescient title for the band. The original group ended up splitting very soon after recording the song.

— End Fact Cabinet—

Write in to the podcast: getthewordpodcast@gmail.com . Give us your word suggestions, and I’ll take them into consideration for the podcast. Please rate and review this podcast ANYWHERE that you can. It’s super helpful. Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is getthewordpodcast@gmail.com. We’d love to hear from you. 



Credits

Songs:

Professor Longhair with Baldhead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4a7UdJG73g

Shirley and Lee with Let the Good Times Roll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_sFlcJ2udfg

The Specials - Ghost Town: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ2oXzrnti4

Derrick and Patsy with Let the Good Times Roll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-RfMwK9RhBY

Prince Buster’s Ten Commandments: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=df5eGlr3WsM

Fats Domino: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VIIyUZVJdE4

Rosco Gordon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pUYfWELlbTY

Folkes Brothers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b4MPvjuU9Eg

Jamaican Mento: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1xfQsfw1coQ

Show Notes:

https://musicianbio.org/shirley-lee/

https://www.allmusic.com/album/shirley-lee-mw0000060617?1625874956510

https://musicaficionado.blog/2017/06/01/ghost-town-by-the-specials/

http://cassavafilms.com/list-of-9/nine-british-bands-that-had-to-change-their-names-for-the-us-audience?doing_wp_cron=1625950391.5592179298400878906250

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ska

http://cassavafilms.com/list-of-9/nine-british-bands-that-had-to-change-their-names-for-the-us-audience?doing_wp_cron=1625950391.5592179298400878906250

https://www.allmusic.com/style/ska-revival-ma0000002403

http://www.thedarksighed.com/ska/bk2_4.html

Thompson, Dave (2002) "Reggae & Caribbean Music", Backbeat Books, ISBN 0-87930-655-6

Reggae Routes: The Story of Jamaican Music

Petridis, Alexis (8 March 2002). "Ska for the madding crowd". The Guardian. London, England. Retrieved 5 September 2013.

Jah Music, by Sebastien Clarke

https://www.liveabout.com/ska-music-basics-3552840

https://www.flickr.com/photos/18746106@N02/3860773084

http://old.skabook.com/foundationska/2014/04/oh-carolina-folkes-brothers/

Coleman, Rick (2006). Blue Monday: Fats Domino and the Lost Dawn of Rock 'n' Roll. Da Capo Press. p. 210. ISBN 0-306-81491-9.

https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/mar/08/artsfeatures.popandrock

https://www.britannica.com/art/ska

Ernest Ranglin: https://potentbrew.com/skaregdu.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ska

https://www.discogs.com/artist/411366-Folkes-Brothers?anv=The+Folks+Brothers

https://www.discogs.com/artist/38770-Prince-Buster

Ska: The Rhythm of Liberation
By Heather Augustyn

Clarke, Sebastien "Jah Music: the Evolution of the Popular Jamaican Song"

Augustyn, Heather (2010). Ska: An Oral History, p. 16. ISBN 0-7864-6040-7.

https://www.jamaica-land-we-love.com/jamaican-ska-music.html

http://old.skabook.com/foundationska/2014/04/oh-carolina-folkes-brothers/

soundbible.com

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center: https://monroevillemusiccenter.bandcamp.com/track/the-perfect-planet

And Kevin Macleod https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Kevin_MacLeod/Jazz_Sampler/Faster_Does_It_1271

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches: https://brunofsanches.myportfolio.com/ 

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