Oh Carolina: The Folkes Brothers

oh carolina

In 1994, Roger Steffens wrote a fantastic article about the Folkes Brothers and their significant song, “Oh Carolina.” He had the opportunity to interview John Folkes who talked about the creation of this song and their origins as a group. Here is the transcript which was written in the middle of the lawsuit over the rights to the song. A judge did finally rule that John Folkes was the song writer.

Folkes’ Tale

falseSteffens, Roger. The Beat 13. 2 (1994): 58-59,82.

 John Folkes raised in Trench Town and holder of a Ph. D. in literature from the University of Toronto, recently surfaced from self-imposed retirement from the music business to speak with The Beat at length about his inspiring history and his current legal battles. On the phone his voice is avuncular, rich and warm, conjuring up the image of a mild-mannered middle-aged mentor, sounding like the professor he is. But physically, he appears half his age, tall, slim and muscular, without a trace of gray. He compares himself to Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, battling against powerful forces, undaunted and filled with conviction that justice will be his.

“I was born in Trench Town,” he recalls, “the bedrock of Jamaican music. Number 5 Sixth Street. My father was a minister of religion in the Church of God, a Pentecostal Church. You had problems in terms of just surviving, finding food on the table and so forth, but there was always the music, there was the religion, the sports, and the sense of belonging in a community.”

He made an enthusiastically received public debut at Race Course at the age of 12, imitating Mario Lanza, singing “The Lord’s Prayer.” “I used to imitate Uoyd Price a lot, and Chuck Willis, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles. You’d listen to these people over the Rediffusion or radio and you’d try to imitate them, and you’d get the voice training. I also entered competitions at the nearby Ambassador Theater and Palace Theater, musical challenges which helped nurture the creative forces that brought ‘Oh Carolina’ into being.”

By 1953, at the age of 12, he had begun what he calls “a spontaneous primal kind of vocal expression” in their yard, joined by his two brothers Mico and Junior for informal practices. Derrick Morgan, Alton Ellis, and other local luminaries would come by, offering encouragement. “My first gig, “remembers Folkes, “was on Vere Johns’ Opportunity Hour,’ with a song called ‘Beep-oop-mm-bipe-oop’.”

“Oh Carolina,” destined to become one of the most requested songs in the history of Jamaican sound systems and dances, dates back to 1953 , the year in which Folkes “actually composed it with a pencil in my hand on my doorsteps. The other details of the composition itself I want to remain as an Arcanum at this stage. But I will say this much: A variety of interesting elements conjoined in my creation of the song.” He continues animatedly: “I knew it was going to be a hit. In the yard first, they just say ‘Whoa!’ And this was before the drumming or the background or anything , just the tune itself with the backup with my brothers. When I sang in those days I always got a gathering, and people would do a kind of dip dance to it, not ska, and I realized it was a different kind of song. Even one recording artist who had a big hit previously wanted it. It was that well received then, before I met Count Ossie.”

Living in Trench Town, the Folkes family often came in contact with dreadlocked Rastamen, who at the time were considered the lowest of all social outcasts, and were often objects of scorn and fear. Folkes sought them out for religious dialogue and found them to be “very good people.”

The connection between one of Rasta’s most influential drumming groups, Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari, and the sons of the preacher man came through a wanna-be producer who met them at an audition at Duke Reid’s liquor store/studio. His name: Prince Buster. “I didn’t know anything about him,” admits Folkes, “he was just a dj at the time with Duke and a bouncer. So he had no name and this is why I say that The Beat magazine article [Vol. 12 #4, 1993] which said that Count Ossie really put the song along, it sort of rode the coattails of fame, it’s not really true. Because they literally had no names at the time. Count Ossie was doing his Nyahbinghi drumming up in the Wareika H ills, and it was pretty well confined there, and the general public knew nothing of Prince Buster. The truth is that the song was so strong that it promoted itself.”

Mico, Junior and John Folkes had spent some time rehearsing their song at Reid’s establishment when by happenstance they met Prince Buster, who showed great interest in the song, so Folkes decided to cut it instead with him. But Folkes is emphatic 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 perm ission . ” The brothers took immediately to Count Ossie, and Folkes remembers him as “being a very pleasant, very cairn gentleman. Bunny and Skitter were there too, practicing ‘Chubby’ up in the Wareika Hills where my brothers and I rehearsed 1Oh Carolina’ with Count Ossie. But of the songs with the drum sound released at that time from the Wareika Hills rehearsals with Ossie, ‘Oh Carolina’ was the one that took off. It had the magic. It even overshadowed the flip side, ‘Met A Man.’”

“Oh Carolina” became “one of the first songs recorded in the JBC studios,” according to Folkes, and they did it all in one take. “Now very interestingly enough, because in The Beat article it said that Buster possibly played the piano – no, it was Owen Grey. He came while we were rehearsing a bit and came up with the piano riff , just cold, from out of nowhere. He had not rehearsed it with us before. A kind of deus ex machina event. He just came in and wanted to be part of an exciting happening and I allowed him to help out.”

The song was released in late ’59. Forresters Hall was where the dancehall massive of the time went to hear the very latest shots, and the song was played there as many as 1 5 times in a single evening. “People were just traveling there, they would fill up the place just to hear this song.” It got so big, the radio could no longer ignore it. “I remember the first time it came over JBC,” exults Folkes. The announcer, “Radcliffe Butler said, ‘Here is a very controversial song’!” It was because “Oh Carolina” was “the first song throughout the whole history of Jamaica that gave the Rastafarian movement respectability, and it did it in a subtle way. The tradition of the kumina drums, and the cromanty drums, burru drums, those are the symbols of protest in Jamaican history. The Maroons, for instance, who fought the British successfully, used to communicate with one another through the sound of drums. Also the drums were socio-cultural instruments that colonized Jamaica couldn’t truly identify with because of the rituals and the seances around them, the Pocomania tradition, for instance. So even though they are very truly our culture, Jamaicans had a way of looking down at things like that because of the colonial influence in the country.

“So I did Count Ossie a favor, because he was looking for someone to record him. And he got his name associated with the song. The drums came and they had a controversial effect too, because people say the drums were Rastafarian. But in Oh Carolina’ it was just the drums: There were no Rastafarian lyrics. There was no protest, there was no philosophy, no theology. And so it was acceptable as an art form that somehow empowered African roots in a very unintimidating, subtle fashion. At first people thought, because of the drums, that the Folkes Brothers were Rastafarians; also because my brother, Mico, wore a full beard then. But we were and still are Christians.”

The single was released under the Folks (sic) Brothers name on the Buster Wild Bells label. “People didn’t know whether to dance to it or listen to it. I felt good because I realized if there was that polarity of response to it, it must have been good.” Then, “a dance sort of just evolved from it. The Rastafarians would do a kind of spear dance to it, a jump and spearing action, sort of reminiscent of the tribal interpretation of social events In dance and music. And then the general partygoers would do a jump-and-kick dance to it, and at points they would hold hands together in a communal folksy form, in response to the music. Shaggy’s video has people doing the ‘wind’ and ska dance to it. While music does allow for freedom of interpretation and expression, the true dance to Carolina’ is “The Carolina Dance,’ such as I described to you. Oh Carolina’ is not ska; neither is it calypso or rhythm and blues or boogie woogie or mento or rock ‘n’ roll. It is essentially an innovative heritage folksong done, ironically, by Folkes. But it has echoes of some of the above. It was a party song, and it still is a party song. At Jamaican parties, the original is still being played too, to introduce the whole party and in the middle to introduce the old songs, and at the very end,” just as Island Records chose “Oh Carolina” to begin and end their recent 4-cd Jamaican musical history box set Tougher Than Tough. Says Folkes with a mixture of humility and wonder, “One gentleman said to me, Jamaica’s national anthem is ‘Carolina.’ Though it’s an exaggeration, it just shows the extent to which it has sort of gotten itself rooted in the very fabric of Jamaican culture.”

How does he feel about his composition being referred to as the “first reggae record”? “It’s not really true,” he demurs. But “it influenced the reggae movement. You know, I think of ‘Oh Carolina’ the way I do Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. It stands there in literature by itself refusing to be analyzed in traditional terms. Yet it’s a powerful thing, not written with any kind of formal tradition, but just powerful feral writing.” Plus, ” ‘Carolina’ has a heavy drum sound: primal, atavistic, infectious, going back to your roots, but at the same time not making any threatening statement. The ideal combination. And what happened – once the Rastafarians got the respectability, it was now possible to invoke the philosophy. It paved the way for Bob Marley and others.”

In 1967 Folkes found his way out of the fetid backwater of Trench Town and into the frozen north of Toronto, where he eventually achieved a doctorate in literature, writing his dissertation on the poetry of Robert Frost. He became a high school teacher, specializing in English literature and theater arts, which gave him the opportunity to sustain his love for music and passion for composing songs. During these years he composed over 150 songs which he says he still plans to do something about. Has he been happy with the “Carolina” experience? ” ‘Carolina’ was not a song that gave me much pleasure to think about or much pleasure to talk about, despite its fame.”

Until last year. From out of nowhere, a Jamaican living in America, a Persian Gulf war veteran calling himself Shaggy, recorded a version of “Oh Carolina.” (There had been other versions done earlier without Folkes’ permission, the Byron Lee and the Dragonnaires version, for example, and one done fairly recently by Brian and Tony Gold. The latest are ones by Reggae Master [“On A Reggae Tip”] and Shabby G [“Loaded”] which both credit Folkes as writer.) The Shaggy version set the whole world on fire, topping the charts in a reported 14 countries.

Suddenly the sharks circled once more. “Buster,” Folkes inveighs testily, “reports he got a gold record for recording my song. So he is not only claiming unlawfully to be writer of ‘Oh Carolina,’ he is also claiming to be the singer, saying that my voice is his. On one label he even puts down ‘Prince Buster and the Folkes Brothers. ‘ And to add insult to injury he is making claim that my brothers never backed me up in the recording. I wonder what ‘Folkes Brothers’ means then, if it’s not Mico Folkes, Junior Folkes, John Folkes. Finally, I got the opportunity to call him into questioning, after all these years. He either thought I was dead or a fool. He mistook silence for acquiescence, and patience for delay. He mistook the Devil’s time for God’s time. He forgot about automatic copyright, which extends up to 50 years after an author’s death. Now he and others will experience the reality of one of his one songs, of one that he can truly say that I did not compose, Time Longer than Rope.’

Another potential litigant is Henry Mancini who, astoundingly, demanded 50% of all royalties through his lawyers. One smiles wryly at the image of the “Pink Panther” and “Peter Gunn” composer sitting around an open campfire in the Wareika Hills in 1958 sucking chalice with a bunch of matted-haired Rasta outcasts, trying to come up with a hook for “Oh Carolina.” In truth, it is because of the alleged use of a small sample of Mancini’s “Peter Gunn” in Shaggy’s hit that Mancini is asking for all that money. He subsequently came down to 20 per cent. But Folkes wants truth to bring him down to zero. “It’s really silly,” observes Folkes, “because I played Mancini’s line for a music teacher at the school where I work, who has over 25 years’ experience, and she said, ‘But, John, that bar goes back to the 11th century!’

Mancini has his name put down along with Buster and Shaggy on Shaggy’s album as writer also, thus being part of a process that criminally discredits me as author, making me out in this way to be a liar and a thief as I claim what is my own.” Folkes is equally perturbed over Virgin Records’ (with whom he says he signed no contract) dealings with the song. Folkes comments: “Virgin has credited Shaggy, Mancini and Buster on Shaggy’s album as writers, and at various times all of them plus Orville Burrell and W. Riley in Billboard as writers of the song, without any mention of John Folkes, its composer. I was shocked when I learned months ago what Buster did. I didn’t believe he would go that far. So if anyone believes that because Prince Buster, after many years, out of jealousy and greed, went and registered my song in his name when I had not registered it. that act makes the song his, they are badly misinformed, truly deluded. I have registered my song too, but registration is not proof of copyright, it is only suggestion of copyright ownership. It is automatic copyright, which is mine, the act of creation itself, that is crucial, that is proof of ownership.”

Although the lawyers, as always, are the only ones making any money currently from the case, Folkes is unflagging in pursuing his claims. “I can’t live with anybody saying it’s not my song. I did not sit down in 1958 on my doorsteps at 5 Sixth Street, Trench Town, and write the song with either Shaggy. Henry Mancini or Cecil Campbell [Prince Buster), or anyone else. I created it alone, and I do not want any credit to be given to these people under any circumstance. After he started exploiting my song, Prince Buster built an impressive house up in Beverley Hills in Jamaica, and Shaggy got the greatest reggae contract in history because of his cover version of my song. A whole bunch of people have become fat off my composition, and they are still coming in, lumbering like overstuffed cormorants looking for more than their pouches can hold. They are all moving in viciously likethe sharks seeing blood on Hemingway’s old man’s big catch. And I have to be beating them off with a 35-year-old oar of truth, which is 35 times stronger for its golden age. Yes, I am speaking out at last, and I am not holding back any punches, for God Almighty is on my side.”

And how much did John Folkes make for his perennial anthem? “Sixty pounds, and even that pittance was extracted from Buster under circumstances that were not very pleasant,” indicates Folkes. “It was all promises, he laments. “I trusted the man. I was hoodwinked: He was going to take the song and give me nothing. I mean absolutely nothing, much less royalties. Now it is not just the money; it is the principle, all about truth, and justice, and my good name. I don’t like being publicly made out to be a liar and thief of what is mine one bit. Not one bit!”

A court case is scheduled to be heard in October in London to determine the lawful composer of “Oh Carolina” and to disperse royalty payments for the song. Thirty-five years of musical history will be listening to the verdict.

 

 

4 comments

  1. I believe he is still alive, along with his brothers. They released an album in 2011–http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/folkesbrothersandjahd. Also a neat note, Keith Richards has cited this song as one that inspired him.

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