Desmond Dekker

Desmond Dekker’s Girls


Desmond Dekker was perhaps most well-known for his rude boy songs, the lyrics that celebrated rude boys, but also told them to keep a cool head. His songs also told of the problems of everyday people, those who slaved for bread so every mouth could be fed, how it is very hard sometimes for a man to find his own meal and sometimes he has to go out and steal. He told of how money is so hard to get and so easy to go. Even though there were troubles and misery, he encouraged us to live in unity and since we were one creation we should live as one nation.
But then there were Desmond Dekker’s women, or more accurately, the girls and the themes of love and unity didn’t seem to apply to the male and female sexes. Sure there were sweet love songs in the tradition of American rhythm and blues, but then Dekker had a definite opinion when it came to relationships. They were bloodsuckers, cannibals, seducers who lured men to evil. Women were either the recipient of troubles, or the creator of troubles. In “You’ve Got Your Troubles,” Dekker isn’t feeling much sympathy for the subject of this song, a recipient of troubles, identified only as “girl.” He sings, “You’ve got your troubles baby, I’ve got mine.” It’s not a shared misery, a community of support. He is exhausted, tired of hearing this girl’s troubles as he sings, “What’s wrong with you? Lord knows. . . . Don’t come running to me baby with all your troubles.”

Women are the creator of trouble and problems. In “This Woman,” Dekker doesn’t mince words when he sings, “Oh yeah, here is a Jezebel, more like a lion, here is the root of all your pain, she is a Jezebel, more like a lion, she is the root of all your pain, don’t let she rotten you, don’t let she get to you, and when today she’ll try to come into your heart. Here is a Jezebel, no, you are a cannibal, you are the root of all the evil, you are a Jezebel, like a parasite, you are the root of all your pain.” He is advising other men to resist this evil creature who will create misery and devour them, like Jezebel, the biblical character who, through her made-up beauty, seduced her husband into worshiping false gods. Jezebel is a symbol of sexuality and trickery, a woman who was evil and cunning. She is also invoked in Justin Hinds in his song, “Carry Go Bring Come,” a song that Dekker covered with The Specials.

In “Carry Go Bring Come,” women are gossipers, stirring up trouble, creating problems. Carry go, bring come, is the act of spreading gossip. “This carry go bring come, my dear, brings misery . . . You’re going from town to town making disturbances, It’s time you stopped doing those things, you old Jezebel . . . It needs no light to see you’re making disturbances . . . It’s better to seek a home in Mount Zion high, Instead of keeping oppression upon innocent man . . . Time will tell on you, you old Jezebel.”
In Dekker’s songs “Mother Pepper” and “It’s a Shame,” he again sings of women as gossipers and trouble makers, insulting them with the same phrase in both songs, “Just stand and look at your mouth, it big as the Gulf of Mexico.” “Mother Long Tongue” is also about a gossiper as Dekker sings, “In the morning when you wake, you don’t wash your mouth, you just lippy lippy lippy gal, wha wrong with you.” A lippy lippy gal is one who talks too much, a blabbermouth.

There is no unity and equality in Dekker’s “A Wise Man,” when he sings, “A wise man keepeth his life, and the life of his wives and kin . . . Take the tip from me yeah, and you will see Lord.” What Dekker means by keeping his life is subject to interpretation, but it is evident that if the man, or the wise man, is the keeper of the life of his wives (multiple) and kin, then the man is certainly in the seat of power, and Dekker is offering his advice to his listeners on this subject as the man with the wisdom.
In “Dracula,” Dekker’s female subject can either be a monster of novelty in this humorous song, a reference to a duppy, or a metaphor for a blood-sucking creature. It may, in fact, be a little of all of these possibilities. Dekker doesn’t sing of a vampire, but he sings of Dracula, the most popular vampire, an icon of pop culture and movies, so there is a bit of fun play present in this song. But there is more than just whimsy in Dekker’s song. He is also being quite nasty about the woman about which he sings. She, a vampire, is a thing of evil. The vampire does appear in Caribbean folklore as Old Higue, a duppy. But some Jamaican musicians, namely Lee “Scratch” Perry and Peter Tosh, have used vampires to describe people who are leeches, who suck the life from others, who exploit and take from others. Dekker sings, “One rainy night, as I was walking on the beach, I meet a girl, believe me folks she was fabulous. I held her hands, she held mine too, she smiled at me, believe me folks, she was a Dracula. So beware my friends, for she’s pretty smart, she has a face like an angel, and eyes like blazing fire. Her teeth is gruesome, ready to stick your veins, do not fall in love for that girl, she is a Dracula.”

Dekker’s women could also be useless, inept, unworthy of being an obedient wife. In “Get Up Edina,” (sometimes spelled Adina) this “girl” is lectured and warned by Dekker, and it is important to note that Edina is referred to as a “girl” instead of a woman, meaning that her status is below his, she is subservient and young, still needing some tutelage and education. She is not yet mature and he is commanding her, “Get up Edina . . . I said to get up Edina, girl. I send you a school, you won’t learn, I send you a church, you won’t hear, I’m gonna send you back to your mama’s house, I’m gonna send you back to your papa’s house, I’m gonna send you back where you come from, I said to go home, go home, Edina,” scolds Dekker. He ends with an insult, “I say you down a di gully,” meaning she is to be thrown out into the street, into the gully, the gutter, where the garbage and waste water run.

According to some claims, there are two songs in which Dekker speaks to his younger sister, as an older brother, correcting her for her mischievous ways. Lorna Dekker In “Pickney Gal” his little sister steals money from him and he tells her to “come here,” likely for a scolding or to be corrected in some way for her transgressions. Colin Larkin in his Encyclopedia of Popular Music writes about Dekker’s song, “It Mek,” which was originally titled, “A It Mek,” which means “that’s why it happened,” that the song “was inspired by Desmond’s sister Elaine, [sic. Lorna] who fell off a wall at her home and cried ‘like ice water.’” It wasn’t the first time he had counseled children. In “Honour Your Mother and Father,” he tells all children to do as the title suggests. It is a song about obedience. Although the song “Parents,” which seems like a counterpart to “Honour Your Mother and Father,” advises them to “take my advice and you will find your reward, parents do not provoke your children to wrong.”

Speaking of parents, in “Licking Stick” Dekker sings of a young girl who has been corrected by the rod, beat, given a “licking” with a stick at the hands of her father and she pleads to her mother for mercy. “Papa, papa, papa; do not lick me with that; mama, mama, mama; it licked too hot; I’ve got the flipping hiccups, mama; I’ve got the flipping hiccups, papa; mama, mama, mama; are you feeling sick; papa, papa licked me; with the licking stick . . . mama, please tell daddy; do not hit me with that; mama, I’m feeling pain; I’m really, really feeling; mama, help me tell my daddy; to help me, I can’t stand it, I can’t; no, I can’t stand it; no, no, I can’t.” If the song weren’t so upbeat and lively, and if Dekker’s voice weren’t so beautiful, the song would almost be too painful to listen to.
He gives more advice and warning to a young girl in “Mother Young Gal,” by using a poem and a proverb. He sings, “’Come into me parlor’ said the spider to the fly, long run, short catch, mother young gal.” The Spider and the Fly is a poem by Mary Howitt that tells of a cunning Spider who ensnares a naive Fly through the use of seduction and flattery. The poem is a cautionary tale against those who use flattery and charm to disguise their true evil intentions. “Come into my parlour,” has become an aphorism used to indicate a false offer of help or friendship that is in fact a trap. He sings of a “long run short catch,” which is a Jamaican proverb meaning that it may take a long while for you to be caught and punished for wrong-doing, but you will be caught one day.

But Dekker was far from perfect in his songs. Here he was, doling out guidance, reprimanding, scolding, even name calling, yet he himself was guilty. In “Baby Come Back” he sings, “There ain’t no use in you crying, ‘cause I’m more hurt than you, I shoulda not been out flirting, but now my love is true.” Dekker was unfaithful to his partner, yet he is telling her that he hurts more than she does, so he is the victim of his own actions.
Dekker was and always will be the “King of Ska,” undeniably a beacon of Jamaican music. He did worry about what would happen to the “Young Generation” and he appealed to those in his own country, in the UK, and now, people all over the world even almost a decade after his death. His voice is sublime, his songs are infectious. His lyrics represented generations. As a woman, I do not think any differently of Dekker knowing his struggles with the female species. Perhaps here, again, he was a mouthpiece for the people, a reflection of what he saw, a conduit through which the music and society flowed.


Baby Talk


The first time my friend Michael Turner chatted me up about the way many female singers use a baby voice we were at Gloria’s in Port Royal and I was too distracted by the head and tail still on his red snapper and the froth on my Red Stripe to get past the surface response of, “Yeah, there are a few of them, aren’t there?” We threw out Millie Small of course, and a few others. The second time he mentioned it was recently on instant messenger and he sent me few links to some Hazel & the Jolly Boys tunes, and there it was again. I had to investigate.

Why the baby voice? Why do a number of women in the early 1960s sing like a little tiny girl? It can’t be real, right? It sounds like a falsetto. It’s the difference between the Madonna of “Like a Virgin” and the Madonna of “Like a Prayer.” Two different voices, one contrived, one full and deep. Vocal personas. Of course the most notable of examples is Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” and considering the popularity of this song, I have come up with a couple of theories on the baby voice and would like your opinions, so chime in at the comment section at the end. And if you’re not sure what I mean, here are a few links:

Millie Small’s Sweet William:

Hazel & the Jolly Boys and the Fugitives:

Hazel & the Jolly Boys and the Fugitives:

Okay, so let’s start at the beginning. It has been theorized that the falsetto (and I do believe this is related, as I will show) originated in African folk music. I’m not sure this really translates to Jamaican culture though because the African folk music featuring falsetto came from the Mbube style of South Africa, and the tribes that came to Jamaica through the slave trade came from West Africa, so there may or may not be a connection. But the early American rhythm and blues forms, and the music that preceded that, like blues and gospel, also featured falsetto, and this music definitely influenced Jamaican music.

In the 1930s and 1940, even before those radio broadcasts came to Jamaica via New Orleans, Miami, and Nashville radio airwaves, groups like the Swan Silvertones and the Soul Stirrers used falsetto in their repertoire. One of the most important blues singers, “Howlin’ Wolf who helped to develop the Chicago blues style, combined both falsetto howl and a growling voice to characterize his own sound. Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Jr. had his classic novelty R&B tune “Ain’t Got No Home,” in which he uses a falsetto.

In the 1950s, groups like The Ink Spots, Little Joe & The Thrillers, Jan & Dean, the Flamingos, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, and dozens of others used a falsetto for the high tenor to round out the full line-up of harmonic tones. Were these groups an influence on Jamaican vocalists? You betcha they were! Patsy Todd told me herself, “I’m somebody who liked to listen to the radio, and I really got interested in this group, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. I used to hear them singing and I used to sing after them.”

We know that a number of Jamaican vocalists over the years then employed the falsetto from time to time, including the Jiving Juniors in 1962 with “Sugar Dandy,” Desmond Dekker in plenty of songs, and of course, Junior Murvin in the classic Police and Thieves in 1976 to name just a few.

How is the falsetto connected to the baby voice? They sure aren’t the same thing. Well I would argue that it is a woman’s attempt at a tiny little voice, like the falsetto. A female voice attempting a falsetto is, well, just a female voice in a way, so perhaps they were trying to minimize their voice in the same style—after all, Jamaican musicians during this era were attempting to emulate the sounds they heard from America with their own take on it.

But I do have a few other thoughts on this subject too. I really do feel that Millie Small’s voice in her “My Boy Lollipop” classic is her singing voice. I just talked to Millie a few months ago and her voice is tiny, even in conversation. That’s not to say that as Millie’s singing voice matured that other deeper qualities didn’t come out, but in 1964 at age 15 when that song was recorded, she was using her little girl voice which can be heard in almost all of her other songs like “We’ll Meet” with Roy Panton in 1962, “Sweet William” in 1964, and “Hey Boy Hey Girl” with Jimmy Cliff in 1966. Considering that a little girl voice was so popular during this era that even the men were trying to use one, Millie sure didn’t try to get rid of it. The heavy tones and gloomy themes of Billie Holliday and female jazz singers were no longer in fashion. It was upbeat, spritely, fresh, and independent. Considering the popularity of this song, which was HUGE, it’s not too farfetched to see that many other vocalists continued in the same vein. In 1967, Hazel Wright recorded “Stop Them” with the Jolly Boys and the Fugitives, with the B side “Deep Down,” both of which feature the baby voice. There are others too so identify some more in the comment section, if you hear one or two.

There is one more thing I want to mention before I finish my end of the discussion here, especially since the form of the duet was so popular during this time. There is the underlying, certainly not overt, image of the female as sweet, demure, needing a strong man for survival, while the male is the strong provider, the savior, the powerful character. This is a traditional and stereotypical role for men and women, especially during this era. Before you cry foul, think about the images portrayed in American television during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the images of sexuality and femininity—they are innocent and wearing pearls. That’s not to say there weren’t other images of women during this time, but the baby-voiced girl certainly fit in with the times.

Just a few of my thoughts. What are yours?

And I am adding this paragraph to my post after reading some EXCELLENT comments made by fellow JA music aficionados. The influence may very well be Shirley & Lee, that duo that has hugely popular in Jamaica during the late 1950s. The vocal team was from New Orleans so not only were Jamaicans getting songs like “Let the Good Times Roll” and “The Flirt” on radio from WNOE, but they also witnessed Shirley & Lee in person since they performed in Kingston a number of times. They performed at the Carib Theater in October, 1957 when they were billed as “The Sweethearts of the Blues.” They returned in August 1961 and performed at the Palace Theater, and again in July, 1962 when they performed at the Ambassador, the Ritz, in Spanish Town, and the Cosmo Race Course and their songs were frequently ranked on Jamaican charts.

For a sample of Shirley & Lee, check this out:

Thanks, all, and keep the dialogue going!