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10 Songs of Misfortune From the Caribbean

Music is a diverse form of expression that takes in many styles. It's a popular field that can only be briefly sampled in a short article.

The stormy Caribbean—in the subtropics, trouble can show up at any time

The stormy Caribbean—in the subtropics, trouble can show up at any time

Musical Accounts of Trouble in the Caribbean

Vacations, and travel in general, are designed to be times of relaxation and enjoyment. But, as everyone should know, this is not always the case. In fact, the literature of bad trips and hard times in foreign lands is vast and varied. The following songs are ten musical accounts of trouble in the Caribbean, coming from both outsiders and insiders.

1. "Sloop John B": An Old Folk Song From the Bahamas

The much-recorded folk song called the "Sloop John B" goes back to at least 1916, when American musicologists discovered the catchy tune. The song has been recorded many times, including Carl Sandburg in 1927 and the Kingston Trio in 1958. This a capella performance by the Fisherman Friends from Port Isaac, Cornwall, was done at the Cambridge Folk Festival (England) and gives a gutsy nautical feel to the folk song.

2. "Jamaica Mistaica" by Jimmy Buffett

Perhaps nobody embodies the Caribbean good life better than Jimmy Buffett. From Key West to Havana and points beyond, Buffett has written and sung about the region with a wit, charm, and grace that few have matched. Even when accidentally placed under fire, the rambling songwriter does not lose his sense of humor.

3. "Run Joe" by Maya Angelou

Back in the late forties, Nat King Cole recorded a song called "Calypso Blues" and then Harry Belafonte followed with an entire album of Caribbean music. The music collection was simply called Calypso, even though not all the music was done in that style.

Maya Angelou, who would later go on to become a popular writer, entered the fray with her own album and a part in a 1957 movie, Calypso Heat Wave. Here she is from the film, telling a funny tale of misfortune in a number called, "Run Joe."

4. "Jolly Mon Sing" by Jimmy Buffett

"Jolly Mon Sing" is another Buffett tune, most likely assimilated and transposed from island folklore that Jimmy encountered during his numerous sailing trips through the islands. To add a surrealistic note, this live version of the song is performed live in front of an aquatic tank full of mermaids in Cincinnati.

5. "Shanty Town" by Desmond Dekker

Next stop is Jamaica, where we hear from two island-born musicians, Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley, who both got their musical beginnings back in the '60s.

Released in 1967, Desmond Dekker's "Shanty Town" was one of the few island tunes to get a lot of airplay in England, as well as Jamaica. "Shanty Town" is also one of the very first "Rude Boy" stories, as it tells of a local crusade against a seaside construction project and the subsequent demonstration that does not end well for the participants.

6. "Waiting in Vain" by Annie Lennox and Bob Marley

Not much to say about the second song, except that it was written by the legendary Bob Marley and then performed by Annie Lennox of Eurythmics fame in Central Park. By the way, the song does not have a happy ending.

7. "Rum and Coca Cola" by Kobo Town

The Kobo Town band members all hail from Port of Spain, Trinidad, but now live in Canada, where they frequently perform in the Toronto area. Listen to them tackle an old Lord Invader song that the majority of the Western world most often associates with the Andrew Sisters. Kobo Town's Caribbean roots come through loud and clear in this slightly older version that differs significantly from the popular tune, which was recorded in the forties by the famed trio of American ladies.

8. "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" by King Radio

In the late fifties, the Calypso craze, actually made it on to the I Love Lucy Show. Having an actor on the show, Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz), that was actually born in the Caribbean didn't hurt, as the whole cast, including Lucy, Fred, Ethel, and even Little Ricky, get into the act.

"Man Smart, Woman Smarter" was written in 1936 by King Radio, a Trinidadian recording artist, then made famous by Harry Belafonte, when he released his landmark Calypso album. This made-for-TV version of the song followed Belafonte's album by just a couple of years.

9. "Hemingway in Bronze" by Rob Mehl

The last two musical numbers come from two American folksingers, who both have a good story about what not to do when trying to take up residence on a beautiful Caribbean isle.

First up is Rob Mehl, performing his own number, "Hemingway in Bronze," which colorfully describes Hemingway's favorite bar in Havana.

10. "A Gringo in Belize" by Dennis Wolfe

The final song on this list is a Dennis Wolfe song called "A Gringo in Belize." The folk singer, in this case, is Leo Dean.

© 2019 Harry Nielsen