Speculations… Zombie Jamboree

Posted by on Aug 21, 2011 in Speculations | No Comments

Zombie Jamboree lyrics. (As sung by The Kingston Trio, which may or may not be the original lyrics):

“Zombie Jamboree” or “Back to Back” is on the surface a Calypso song about zombies rising from their graves to join in on a dead celebration, in, of all places, Long Island, New York and particularly about a zombie woman seeking the singer of the song, an undead, for her husband. In some circles, (most especially from the American folk and pop music group, The Kingston Trio, as you will hear from the intro to their version of the song below) it supposedly takes its inspiration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem, “Dance of the Dead.” It is quite possible though, knowing the nature and usage of the style of music, which was created by very talented lyricists (and social critics) to talk about the issues and politics of the day in Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), that the song had a double meaning to do with the socio-political atmosphere of T&T and nothing to do with the poem at all.

The earliest writing credit goes to Conrad Eugene Mauge Jr. (by BMI), probably pre-1953, but additional info seems to be lost to the dust of time. Lord Intruder, who is also credited with writing the song on some labels, is said to have first made the tune popular in 1955 when he and his “Twelve Penatrators” won first place at the Calypsonian Carnival with the song. Zombie Jamboree gained further recognition when it was covered by many others including The Kingston Trio, the Mighty Charmer (better known as Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam) and Harry Belafonte, who recorded it five times.

Chorus:
Back to back, belly to belly
Well I don’t give a damn ’cause I’ve done that already
Back to back, belly to belly
At the Zombie Jamboree
Now hear me callin’
Back to back, belly to belly
Well I don’t give a damn ’cause I’ve done that already
Back to back, belly to belly
At the Zombie Jamboree

Zombie Jamboree took place in a New York cemetery (Where?)
Zombie Jamboree took place in Long Island cemetery
Zombies from all parts of the island (Where?)
Some of them are great Calypsonians (Some)
Hey, since the season was Carnivale
They got together in Bacchanal (Whatcha doin’?)

Chorus

One female zombie wouldn’t behave
She say she want me for a slave
In the one hand she’s holding a quart of wine (Whoa)
In the other she’s pointin’ that she’ll be mine
Now believe me folks, yes I had to run (Why?)
Husband of a zombie ain’t no fun (No nice!)
I says “Oh, no my turtle dove”
“That old bag of bones I cannot love” (Whatcha doin’?)

Chorus

Right then and there she raise a “feet”
“I’m a-going to get you now, my sweet”
“I’m gonna make you call me Sweetie Pie”
I says “Oh, no, get back-you lie”
I may be lyin’ but you will see (What?)
After you kiss this dead zombie (Blecccch!!!)
No, I’ve never seen such a horror in me life
Can you imagine me with a zombie wife? (YES!)

Chorus

A quickly researched examination of the issues of 1950’s T&T and a speculaitve analysis of the song (since I currently don’t have access to the original lyrics – which may or may not be the same) may well reveal an alternative origin and meaning. It seems possible that it may have to do with labour movements and presidential politics and possibly Eric Williams, chief and then prime minister of T&T from 1956 to 1981.

Williams was a poor distant relative to a wealthy White/Creole slave owning family in T&T and an exceptional student who eventually won a scholarship to Oxford University in Britain where he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1938 with his thesis, “The Economic Aspects of the Abolition of the Slave Trade and West Indian Slavery.” After being refused employment in Britain, he moved on to Howard University where he wrote “Capitalism and Slavery“, published in 1944, which at the time, controversially argued against British imperialism and cited how economics not only led to Britain’s adherence to a slavery system but also to its abolition of it. It was a proto Black Power ideology text which argued against Britain’s position, especially in regards to its abolition of slavery and that humanitarian motives caused Britain to refrain from the business of it. After his tenure at Howard, Williams returned to T&T where he lectured and organized with several organizations like the Teacher’s Education and Cultural Association (TECA), the Political Education Group (PEG) and then his own, People’s National Movement (PNM) political party and eventually, under his leadership, brought T&T into the era of independence from Britain.

A couple of lines in the song made me think, it could partially be referencing the labour/political movements and hence Williams:

– The “zombie jamboree” could be referring to the lower economic classes of T&T, who used educational and labour parties to organize for political power.

– The “back to back and belly to belly” lyrics could possibly refer to the reality of protest marches and the close proximity of bodies in motion.

– The “long island” reference could actually be talking about the actual island, Long Island, in the region of Saint George in T&T and not the New York borough. (The only problem here is that I believe the “Trio” changed the location lyrics here to Americanize it. It seems other singers who covered the song may have changed the lines here too. For instance, The Charmer says Woodlawn Cemetary instead of Long Island cemetery. Hmmm?)

– “They got together in Bacchanal…” Prior to becoming president, Williams ran a study group called the “Bachacs” which is the Trinidadian slang of the Spanish word, “Bachaco” which is a red stinging ant. “Bacchanal”, a drunken/riotous celebration, partly comes from the name “Bacchus”, the Roman name for Dionysus – the Greek god of wine, who was known to carry a wand covered in honey and wound with ivy and was the weapon he used to destroy the enemies of his freedom. Stinging ant and weapon for freedom…

– And one last long shot here, related to Williams, may be in the lines about the “female zombie”. In his life, Williams was married three times. He actually left (and divorced) his first wife, Elsie Ribiero (and children) and after moving back to T&T, met another woman, Eveline Moyou, whom he married shortly thereafter, but who died three years into their marriage. His third wife, whom he apparently married in secret, was Mayleen Mook Sang, and was a short lived marriage. In a sense, all three women eventually became a “dead” part of Williams personal life, but the first wife was apparently a highly contentious relationship – “Now believe me folks, yes I had to run, Husband of a zombie ain’t no fun…”.

Calypso, the music of the double entendre. Zombies, the archetype of the powerless. The Internet, the home of the passionate blog.