A young Harry Belafonte was preparing his repertoire of Caribbean songs in the 1950s and looking for expert input, when he sought out Louise Simone Bennett-Coverly, known affectionately as Miss Lou and hailed as the mother of Jamaican culture.
Bennett-Coverly had spent decades gathering stories and proverbs just the way she heard them spoken -- not in standard English, but in Jamaican patois. She was intent on preserving the folklore as far back as the 1930s, when Jamaica was still under British cultural rule. It was an act of cultural love and pride.
She told Belafonte about a song known traditionally as “Hill and Gully Rider.” In his hands it became wildly popular as “Day-O,” or “The Banana Boat Song,” with its unforgettable line “daylight come and me wan’ go home.”
“That’s where it came from,” Belafonte said of the song in an interview with The Times. “She was our well of knowledge. When she spoke she told stories in the tongue of the indigenous and the tongue of the average person. It was a remarkable experience,”
Bennett-Coverly, a beloved figure in her homeland, died July 26 at the Scarborough Hospital, Grace Campus in Toronto, hospital officials said. She was 86.
In a career that spanned decades, her humorous performances helped legitimize the language and ultimately gave others license to do the same.
Bennett-Coverly helped define Jamaica’s national identity and its perception in the international arena.
“She was the one who broke the barriers and made the way for Bob Marley’s singing in patois,” said Frankie Campbell of the Fab 5, a Jamaican band. “All the Jamaican stories and proverbs you hear in Bob Marley’s music ... they were kept alive by people like Miss Lou.”
The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper reported that Bennett-Coverly’s remains will be returned to Jamaica, where she will receive a state funeral Aug. 9. She had lived in Canada for many years but had requested to be buried next to her husband, impresario Eric Coverly, who died in 2002. She is survived by a son.
Bennett-Coverly began her work in the days of colonialism, when Britain controlled island life, including language. She was born in Kingston on Sept. 7, 1919, and educated in the island’s schools in standard English. As a teenager she wrote poetry in standard English, until an experience on a public bus when she was 13 changed her views.
In her search for a seat, Bennett-Coverly ended up in the section reserved for the women who sold goods in the marketplace and carried large baskets. It was then that Bennett-Coverly heard one market woman say to another: “ ‘pread out yu’self” (spread out yourself), Bennett-Coverly recalled in a 2003 Inter Press Service news agency article.
The move was intended to prevent the well-dressed school girl from sitting in their section. But Bennett-Coverly focused on the patois, the blend of English with African language elements, and how the woman used it.
“That lady is protesting the fact that she has to sit in the last row [because] they might tear somebody’s stockings in the front row with their baskets, and I started to write,” Bennett-Coverly said.
Before the island’s independence, the British and some among Jamaica’s elite, “wanted you to speak the queen’s English all the time,” Campbell said. Patois was considered a corruption of the language.
But Bennett-Coverly saw a treasure in the culture and was well on her way to becoming a deeply committed advocate of the language. At Friends’ College in Highgate, Jamaica, she studied social work and Jamaican folklore in 1943. That year she began writing a weekly column for a local newspaper. Two years later she earned a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, the first black woman to do so.
Back in Jamaica, Bennett-Coverly performed plays and told stories, sometimes with roots extending to Africa, in patois. The tales of Anancy, a sharp-witted and cunning spider, had survived generations on the island.
In a nation where the oral tradition was a strong conveyor of morals and values, Bennett-Coverly traveled Jamaica talking to and listening to older people and those in rural areas.
In the decades that followed she taught drama and worked in social welfare agencies, but the preservation of the culture and language was always at the heart of her work. She published volumes of poetry, made recordings such as “Miss Lou’s Views,” had her own radio programs, including “The Lou and Ranny Show,” and a children’s television program, “Ring Ding.”
In the 1960s, Campbell was a teenager with a band of his own when he met Bennett-Coverly. “We were fascinated by Miss Lou as young persons growing up in the ‘60s,” said Campbell, whose band would record and perform with Bennett-Coverly. “Everybody was fascinated with Miss Lou.”
Belafonte, who spent part of his childhood in Jamaica, was in his 20s when he returned seeking the wisdom of Bennett-Coverly. “She was the validation of everything that one needed to know about the music of the region,” Belafonte said. “I’d say, ‘I’m looking for this kind of song; I’m looking for that kind of song.’ She’d say, ‘There is a song.’ And then she’d proceed to describe it and even sing it.”
Later Belafonte and songwriter Irving Burgie made word adjustments so the music would be understandable to an American audience. “Calypso,” the album on which the song “Day-O” appeared, was the first by a single artist to sell a million copies and helped create a global audience for Caribbean music. Later forms of island music, including reggae, offered a purer form of the language.
Bennett-Coverly, who spent many years with the island’s Social Welfare Commission, also used her performances as a means of addressing social concerns, such as women’s rights and the rights of the poor. Later generations, including reggae artists Luciano and protest poet Mutabaruka, would cite her as a significant influence.
“The poems she did were poems she wrote before I was born, and they fit right into the reggae rhythms of today,” Mutabaruka said in a 1985 Times article.
Over the years Bennett-Coverly’s work won widespread acceptance and she was awarded numerous honors. But she also heard a tribute to her work each time she witnessed a child singing a folk song or reciting poetry in patois at school, something that never would have happened in her youth.
“I say Jamaica is ... and a lot of the Caribbean countries now are culturally emancipated,” she said in a 1994 article in Everybody’s: the Caribbean-American magazine. “We can sing our songs.... the children can sing the song that they know.”