This semi-feminist calypso is a rewrite of a song with completely different verses and a somewhat different title by the Trinidadian singer Sir Lancelot. He performed it in the movie I Walked with a Zombie (1943), then recorded it with Gerald Clark’s Caribbean Serenaders on Keynote Records, the leftist New York label known for the Almanac Singers, Josh White, and various jazz artists. Lancelot’s version was recorded by Odetta in the 1950s, on an album my parents had… so I’m guessing that’s where I first heard it…
…but the version I sing has completely different verses, on the same theme as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Johnny Be Fair.” Apparently this version was composed by another calypsonian, Lord Melody, who recorded it in 1962 as “Wau Wau” (as in, “Woe, woe is me”). That version was shortly retitled “Shame and Scandal in the Family” and recorded by the Puerto Rican actor Shawn Elliott, who sang it to a modified ska backing, followed by a British ska recording by Lance Percival and versions in various styles by everyone from the Kingston Trio to Trini Lopez to Peter Tosh with the Wailers.
I don’t remember hearing any of those versions, and may well have learned the lyric from Sing Out! magazine, attaching it to my rough memory of Odetta’s melody.
In any case, I started performing it in the early 1980s as an experiment in fingerpicking Caribbean rhythms. I’d gotten interested in Congolese guitar — an interest that later took me to Lubumbashi and lessons from Jean-Bosco Mwenda — and Perry Lederman and I were jamming pretty regularly on “Jamaica Farewell,” so I was looking for a way to fit that kind of picking into my performing repertoire, and this lyric was an obvious winner — though I later switched to playing “Iko Iko” with a similar arrangement.
If you want to hear Lancelot’s original verses, here’s a televised duet by Odetta and Johnny Cash — which I never knew about till I was researching this post.