Thursday, May 01, 2008


Mighty Sparrow, Royal Jail.
Wanda Jackson, Riot in Cell Block #9.

I done tell my friends and my family, not to worry
Any one of them interfere with me, take it easy.
Don't worry to beg the jury
Save the lawyer fee
And if you have any mail
Send it to me at the Royal Jail.

Mighty Sparrow.

The calypsonian Mighty Sparrow was born Slinger Francisco in Grenada in 1935; his family moved to Trinidad when he was a year old. He first sang in the boys choir of St. Patrick's Catholic Church, whose plainsongs and chants would emerge as echoes in Sparrow's records, and by the age of 14 he was playing in a local steel drum band. He got his nickname because of the way he flitted about as he sang, much to the amusement of his elders.

Sparrow's "Royal Jail" is a demonstration of how time enshrouds life--while its lyric was utterly transparent to Trinidadians of the period, it now seems to be composed of a series of riddles without answers. It may have something to do with government minister Dr. Patrick Solomon, who Sparrow disliked (another record of the time was called "No, Doctor, No", though that was about People's National Party leader Eric Williams); it's also a warning to gangsters to back off, and a boast of triumph over Sparrow's competitors.

"Jail" was one of a string of records Sparrow made in the late '50s and early '60s that won him regional fame and local competitions, such as being crowned Trinidad's Calypso Monarch eight times.

He kept on annotating and documenting the waning century, calling out from the margins, whether living in Trinidad, London or Queens--his songs addressed Trinidadian independence, civil rights, tax schemes, cannibalism, women, Fidel Castro eating bananas, thoughts on how to end apartheid (1982's "Isolate South Africa" was followed by 1986's "Invade South Africa"), the Crown Heights riot in NYC, and capitalism, among other things. His 1979 record "Wanted Dead or Alive" celebrates "the rule of the tyrants decline," marking the domino fall of everyone from the deposed (the Shah, Anastasio Somoza, Idi Amin, Ian Smith) to the assassinated (Ali Bhutto, Park Chung-hee) ("so they corrupt, so they vile/so it's coup after coup all the while"). He just made a record supporting Barack Obama.

"Royal Jail" (the namesake of which still stands in Port of Spain, Trinidad) was released as RCA 7-2049 c/w "Freezing in New York"; on 16 Carnival Hits.

Wanda Jackson turns Leiber and Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" into a women's prison revolution, led by Two-Gun Mathilda and the dynamite-tossing Molly. Prison officials, after failing to subdue the women by gunfire, turn to a line of handsome troopers from the state militia as their last line of defense.

While not in the same class as the original version by The Robins (which was part Mad Magazine spoof, part Attica dress rehearsal), Jackson's take is still raucous enough to wake you up. It was recorded on 28 October 1960 and released in February 1961 as Capitol 4520 c/w "Little Charm Bracelet"; on Vintage Collections.

Top: "Axis Sally" (Mildred Gillars), upon release from the Federal Reformatory Prison for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, 10 July 1961. Gillars had spent 11 years in jail after being convicted of treason for broadcasting Nazi propaganda during World War II.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

wow, you seem to know the lyrics to this song pretty good... can you post the rest of them? i love the tune but i have no clue what he's saying...
thanks for the post!