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Louise Bennett-Coverley, “Ms Lou"
1919 - 2006

July 27, 2006

 

Louise Bennett-CoverleyThe renowned folklorist, the Rt. Honorable Louise Bennett-Coverley, “Ms Lou”
passed away July 26, 2006

To send condolences to the family please send emails to regrets@louisebennett.com

Louise Bennett-Coverley


 

 

Louise Bennett (“Miss Lou”) 1919-2006

Poet-activist Louise Bennett, a living legend and cultural icon in Jamaica where she was born in 1919, has died in Toronto where she had lived for the past two decades.

In 1966 _Jamaica Labrish_, a revolutionary book of poems, changed the landscape of literature in English; it paved the way for the dub and rap movements. Louise Bennett used the strength and originality of spoken Jamaican English as her idiom rather than “standard English,” even though there were campaigns at the time against “bad speaking.” "Miss Lou" as she was popularly known, Bennett was loved and celebrated for being the "only poet who has really hit the truth about her society through its own language," and for being an important creator of "valid social documents reflecting the way Jamaicans think and feel and live.” She wrote about racism (“Pass fe White,” “Colour-bar”), colonialism (“Colonisation in Reverse”), city life, World War II, and politics writ large and small. At the time of Jamaican Independence, she summed things up in four lines:

Independance is we nature
Born and bred in all we do,
An she glad fe see dat Govament
Tun independent to. (“Independence”)

She was credited with having “intelligent optimism.” As a comedienne who performed her poems and social commentaries, she used both irony and laughter as a tool for reform. She had a rare talent that could “tek bad tings mek laugh.” She was an artist who said “I believe in laughter.”

Bennett worked, mostly in theatre, to highlight and promote Jamaican culture. Starting out in Kingston theatre productions, in 1948 she became the first Black person accepted at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Upon her return to Jamaica, she became an advocate for the teaching of Jamaican culture. In the 1950s, she joined the British Broadcasting Corporation's Caribbean Service as a folklorist. Bennett taught drama, published numerous novels and poetry collections–all written in the Jamaican vernacular–, and lectured extensively on Jamaican folklore and culture. Her contributions to Jamaican cultural life earned her many awards, such as the M.B.E., the Order of Jamaica (1974), the Institute of Jamaica's Musgrave Silver and Gold Medals for distinguished eminence in the field of Arts and Culture, and an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies (1983).

Her Canadian connections run deep, and she has been honoured here, too. For example, in September 1988 her composition "You're going home now", won a nomination from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, for the best original song in the movie "Milk and Honey." Also in 1998, she received an Honorary Doctor of Letters from York University.

As a young English professor with an interest in Commonwealth writers, I went to see Louise Bennett perform her poems to a capacity crowd in a Toronto public library back (Parkdale) in the 1970s, one of the few venues at the time where families with small children and breast-feeding babies, including my own, were welcome. "Miss Lou" believed that culture was for everyone, not just elites; her wisdom, her big heart, and her laughter, will be missed.

Wendy Robbins



Miss Lou, 86: `Bedrock of Jamaican culture'
Country's patois became accepted through her poems Received many honours in her life, and one after death

Jul. 27, 2006

The 400,000-strong Jamaican diaspora in Canada is in mourning today for their beloved cultural icon Miss Lou, the Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley.

Bennett-Coverley was 86 when she died yesterday at Scarborough Grace Hospital after collapsing at her Toronto home earlier in the morning.





Profile of 'Miss Lou'

Jamaica's First Lady of Comedy
The Hon. Louise Bennett-Coverley O.M. M.B.E. Dip R.A.D.A., D. Lit (Hon)

Louise Bennett was born on September 7, 1919. She was a Jamaican poet and activist. From Kingston, Jamaica Louise Bennett remains a household name in Jamaica, a "Living Legend" and a cultural icon. She received her education from Ebenezer and Calabar Elementary Schools, St. Simon’s College, Excelsior College, Friends College (Highgate).

Although she lived in Toronto, Canada for the last decade she still receives the homage of the expatriate West Indian community in the north as well as a large Canadian following.

She was described as Jamaica's leading comedienne, as the "only poet who has really hit the truth about her society through its own language", and as an important contributor to her country of "valid social documents reflecting the way Jamaicans think and feel and live” Through her poems in Jamaican patois, she raised the dialect of the Jamaican folk to an art level which is acceptable to and appreciated by all in Jamaica.

In her poems she was able to capture all the spontaneity of the expression of Jamaicans' joys and sorrows, their ready, poignant and even wicked wit, their religion and their philosophy of life. Her first dialect poem was written when she was fourteen years old. A British Council Scholarship took her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where she studied in the late 1940’s.

Bennett not only had a scholarship to attend the academy but she auditioned and won a scholarship. After graduation she worked with repertory companies in Coventry, Huddersfield and Amersham as well as in intimate revues all over England.

On her return to Jamaica she taught drama to youth and adult groups both in social welfare agencies and for the University of the West Indies Extra Mural Department.

She lectured extensively in the United States and the United Kingdom on Jamaican folklore and music and represented Jamaica all over the world. She married Eric Winston Coverley in 1954 (who died in 2002) and has one stepson and several adopted children. She enjoys Theatre, Movies and Auction sales.

Her contribution to Jamaican cultural life was such that she was honored with the M.B.E., the Norman Manley Award for Excellence (in the field of Arts), the Order of Jamaica (1974) the Institute of Jamaica's Musgrave Silver and Gold Medals for distinguished eminence in the field of Arts and Culture, and in 1983 the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies. In September 1988 her composition "You're going home now", won a nomination from the Academy of Canadian Cinema ad Television, for the best original song in the movie "Milk and Honey."

In 1998 she received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from York University, Toronto, Canada. The Jamaica Government also appointed her Cultural Ambassador at Large for Jamaica. On Jamaica’s independence day 2001, Bennett-Coverley was appointed as a Member of the Order of Merit for her distinguished contribution to the development of the Arts and Culture.



 

Louise Bennett, Miss Lou is a Jamaican Icon!
September 7

* Louise Bennett was born on this date in 1919. She is a Jamaican poet and activist.

From Kingston, Jamaica Louise Bennett remains a household name on the island, a "Living Legend" and a cultural icon. She received her education from Ebenezer and Calabar Elementary Schools, St. Simon’s College, Excelsior College, Friends College (Highgate). Although she has lived in Toronto, Canada for the last decade she still receives the homage of the expatriate West Indian community in the north as well as a large Canadian following.

She has been described as Jamaica's leading comedienne, as the "only poet who has really hit the truth about her society through its own language", and as an important contributor to her country of "valid social documents reflecting the way Jamaicans think and feel and live” Through her poems in Jamaican patois, she raised the dialect of the Jamaican folk to an art level which is acceptable to and appreciated by all in Jamaica.

In her poems she has been able to capture all the spontaneity of the expression of Jamaicans' joys and sorrows, their ready, poignant and even wicked wit, their religion and their philosophy of life. Her first dialect poem was written when she was fourteen years old. A British Council Scholarship took her to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where she studied in the late 1940’s Bennett not only had a scholarship to attend the academy but she auditioned and won a scholarship. After graduation she worked with repertory companies in Coventry, Huddersfield and Amersham as well as in intimate revues all over England.

On her return to Jamaica she taught drama to youth and adult groups both in social welfare agencies and for the University of the West Indies Extra Mural Department. She has lectured extensively in the United States and the United Kingdom on Jamaican folklore and music and has represented Jamaica all over the world. She has been married to Eric Winston Coverley since 1954 and has one son and several adopted children. She enjoys Theatre, Movies, Auction sales and continues to reside in Kingston.

Her contribution to Jamaican cultural life has been such that she was honored with the M.B.E., the Norman Manley Award for Excellence (in the field of Arts), the Order of Jamaica (1974) the Institute of Jamaica's Musgrave Silver and Gold Medals for distinguished eminence in the field of Arts and Culture, and in 1983 the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of the West Indies. In September 1988 her composition "You're going home now", won a nomination from the Academy of Canadian Cinema ad Television, for the best original song in the movie "Milk and Honey".

In 1998 she received the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters from York University, Toronto, Canada. The Jamaica Government also appointed her Cultural Ambassador at Large for Jamaica. On Jamaica’s independence day 2001, Bennett-Coverly was appointed as a Member of the Order of Merit for her distinguished contribution to the development of the Arts and Culture.

Reference:
The World Book Encyclopedia.
Copyright 1996, World Book, Inc.
ISBN 0-7166-0096-X



 

Louise Bennett ~ Jamaica Labrish
NOH LICKLE TWANG!
(Not Even A Little Accent)

This poem bemoans the fact that a recent repatriate Jamaican has returned from the United States without a trace of having been -- not even a little "twang"! This, to say the least, is a highly unusual occurrence and all the more unforgivable.

Me glad fe se's you come back bwoy,
But lawd yuh let me dung,
Me shame o' yuh soh till all o'
Me proudness drop a grung.

Yuh mean yuh goh dah 'Merica
An spen six whole mont' deh,
An come back not a piece betta
Dan how yuh did goh wey?

Bwoy yuh noh shame? Is soh you come?
Afta yuh tan soh lang!
Not even lickle language bwoy?
Not even little twang?

An yuh sista wat work ongle
One week wid 'Merican
She talk so nice now dat we have
De jooce fe undastan?

Bwoy yuh couldn' improve yuhself!
An yuh get soh much pay?
Yuh spen six mont' a foreign, an
Come back ugly same way?

Not even a drapes trouziz? or
A pass de rydim coat?
Bwoy not even a gole teet or
A gole chain roun yuh t'roat.

Suppose me las' rne pass go introjooce
Yuh to a stranga
As me lamented son wat lately
Come from 'Merica!

Dem hooda laugh afta me, bwoy
Me could'n tell dem soh!
Dem hooda sey me lie, yuh was
A-spen time back a Mocho.

Noh back-ansa me bwoy, yuh talk
Too bad; shet up yuh mout,
Ah doan know how yuh an yuh puppa
Gwine to meck it out.

Ef yuh want please him meck him tink
Yuh bring back someting new.
Yuh always call him "Pa" dis evenin'
Wen him come sey "Poo".


More of Miss Lou



 

We Are all Contributing to Life

INTERVIEW: A Chat with Louise Bennett (1992)
Caribbean Writer Volume 12 - Lilieth Lejo Bailey


Louise Bennett, a Jamaican folk poet and performer, has been instrumental in giving "voice" to the intellectual and cultural identities of the Jamaican peasantry. In using her art to record the life of ordinary Jamaicans, Louse Bennett has been recognized as the foremost West Indian female to employ the Creole idiom for promoting the acceptance of a diasporic wisdom embedded in the Jamaican poetic tradition.

Born in 1919 in Kingston, Jamaica, to a widowed dressmaker, Bennett's artistic learnings, creativity, and love for performance were nurtured by her mother and grandmother. Bennett recalls that as early as age seven, she delighted in telling stories and performing for play-mates and family members.

Unlike poets Una Marson (1905-1965) and Claude McKay (1898-1948) who experimented with the Jamaican Creole, all of Bennett's works (1943 to present) are written and performed in the Jamaican vernacular. Despite vehement criticisms from the upper classes and their concerted efforts to sentence her works to a marginalized position in the emerging Jamaican literary canon, Bennett has continued to use folk language to express the experience of the ordinary Jamaican. She is indeed a revolutionary who uses Jamaican Creole as a fundamental tool for bringing respect and literary recognition to Jamaica's national language.

"Miss Lou," as Bennett is affectionately called, has been writing, performing, and publishing for over forty years, but recognition only came in the 1970s. For her contributions to the preservation and development of Jamaican culture, she has received numerous awards, including the Order of Jamaica in 1974. Today, she is known as the "Honorable Louise Bennett."

There are clear distinctions in the development of Bennett, the artist. Her works can be divided up into four distinct categories: pre-World War II, post-World War II, pre-Independence, and post-Independence. Because many of her works are commentaries on everyday events, the topicality of much of Bennett's earlier poems received biting criticisms from several critics. To these criticisms, Bennett responded with the pen and the voice, as if to insist "important things can be said in the native language."
Examination of Bennett's works brings to light successes in the development of national pride. Indeed, she has challenged the position that the national language is inferior to standard English because both, she contends, are derivative of other languages. The respectability that English enjoys, she believes, ought to be afforded the native Jamaican tongue. The capacity for rational choice, social responsibility, and demand for respectability in a class-conscious, racially ambiguous society, finds Miss Lou giving voice and chiseling out a space for the everyday Jamaican folk.

LB: I noticed that in most of your works, you haven't addressed very much one thing that is a certainty in life, and I think it's a very colorful aspect of the Jamaican lifestyle—our treatment of death.

MISS LOU: I used to start off most of my lecture demonstrations with the Dinkie Minnie which was a function held to cheer up the family of the dead person or to banish grief.

LB: Like a Nine-Night?

MISS LOU: But the Dinkie is not a Nine-Night. The Dinkie is eight nights after the death. From the first night to the eighth. The Ninth Night is a more religious ceremony. The Dinkie Minnie is to keep the family from grieving. And the number eight is definitely significant.

LB: From the African cosmology.

MISS LOU: Yes, from the African tradition. I have talked about this all over the place. I can remember talking about it in Britain once, years ago. There was this lawyer who said he came to London years ago as a law student. He said to me, "I have become so British and have begun to look at things through the British eyes." You know the stiff upper lip and what-not. And he said, "I used to think that when you go to a funeral, it is such a sad thing and all that." And I said, "In our tradition, we danced." He said that he used to think that was primitive. He had this terrible thing about being primitive. And there I was talking about the Dinkie [during the lecture in London] and telling them about the jollity. You laugh your loudest; nothing sad must happen at a Dinkie. You find that in a lot of our folk songs, where the tune of the song might be sad, the mood is happy. Because it's a Dinkie. The whole Dinkie mood is happy. I always cite songs like "Linstead Market": "Carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market / Not a quattie wut sell." It is a sad thing, you know. But instead of singing it in a doleful mood, you sing it happily.

LB: So even though you're dealing with serious subjects. . .

MISS LOU: Yes, you can think about the Dinkie as a creative center because a lot of our folk songs come from the tradition of the Dinkie. Things like "Judy Drownded" and "Herrin' an' Jerk Pork." The important thing is that whatever the songs, they were topical at the time. Whatever was topical, they would make a song on it, eh.

LB: They are doing that still.

MISS LOU: Yes, the Dinkie goes on, man. The Dinkie really goes on. There can be a time in the Dinkie when you feel sad. If the people notice that there is somebody who is grieving within, and not dancing it off, not moving it off, not bawling it off, word would go around, "Boy, we don't mek her cry yet, you know. She no cry at all yet, you know. We haffi mek her bawl." Most of these things are done in circles, in a ring. Everybody would hold hands, including the grieving person. If it's a woman grieving for her husband or if it is a man grieving for his wife or if it's a parent grieving for a child, that person would be in the circle and hold hands, and in the center of the circle they would put. . .If it is a woman and a child, in the center they would put a woman and a child. And if a child had died, a child in the circle would lie down, as if he were dead. And the crowd would just circle. . .everybody start to sing this doleful song:

Bawl 'oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl 'oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl 'oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl 'oman bawl, yuh baby dead Bawl 'oman bawl.

And they keep up that tune until you hear this scream. The person who was grieving inside screams! And the minute she screams, you know, they hold her. They know she's gone. And they start something that is stronger, a more frivolous beat to get her moving, moving. So I talked a lot about Dinkie at this lecture demonstration in London, and this fellow came to me and he said, "You know, I experienced that. I came to this country and for years, I never went back home." Then his father died. And the day he heard that his father died, he was so sad. And everything came down on him. And he talked about the number of times he could have really gone back to look at them. And all the things they did for him. And he felt it. And when he got at the airport [in Jamaica], his three brothers came to meet him, and they took him home. And on the way home, near home, he heard the music and the drums. All the time he was grieving inside, you know. And then he said to himself, "My father is dead, and they're dancing." But he never said a word; he just sat down inside the house. And the brothers came in and said to him, "Come and dance." And he said, "No. I am not dancing. How can I dance? My father is dead." And the brothers said, "Yes, your father is dead. Come." They grabbed him, man, and they took him out to the drums. And then he started to move. And the next thing, he was really dancing. And he got into the mood, until he suddenly realized what was happening. He felt so much better after the dance. And he said, "What a great therapy that I had, and yet I never realized how good it is." He said he saw everything in perspective after that.

LB: Would you say that your work functions to connect people with their past? Do you have that in mind when you are writing or performing?

MISS LOU: (Laughs.) No. My main thing is to get people to respect the language. I was thinking mostly of Jamaicans. One night I sat in a theatre waiting to go on and in the darkness, I heard two male voices—but I never knew who they were—and I heard one say, "What yuh tink 'bout Miss Lou?"

LB: How early was that? When you just started?

MISS LOU: Yes, it was within the first year or so of my really performing. And the other one said, "She is all right man, but she limit herself, man. She limiting herself. She won't get any show but in Jamaica. She can't go no further but Port Royal with that." You know, this is the way they were talking. And I said to myself, that if I can get Jamaicans to understand what I mean, that's all I want. But, Jamaicans are all over the world—those men forgot. We export our people, and we like to travel. We are adventurous. That's the type of people we are And because of that, I have been to every country you can think of. But my main thing was to make people respect their language.

LB: You seem to be so unlike people of your time who aspired to become so British. Yet you were one person who saw the value of using our language—the value of our culture which, looking back, is remarkable. What would you attribute this insight to?

MISS LOU: I believe it's my early connections with the language, with the people. My mother was a dressmaker. She sewed for every type of person, from the fish lady, the coal lady, to the governor lady. Everybody was a lady. My mother lived in town (Kingston) for about 17 years of her life, but she was always a country girl. Eleven years of her life she spent in St. Mary. And St. Mary is one of the parishes that maintains a lot of the traditions, the African customs, and so on. My grandmother, my mother's mother, used to tell me "nancy stories," especially at bedtime. It was almost like a lullaby to me, singing the songs and the Anancy stories and all that. All types of people would come into my mother's sewing room. And gal, people would talk. And sometimes you would hear somebody bus out "Cooyah!"

LB: What I'm trying to get at, Miss Lou, is what is the one thing that you'd put your finger on, if possible, that allowed you to see value in this?

MISS LOU: You would have to tell me that. You would have to figure that out from when I talk to you. The thing is, I never had a feeling of inferiority. Praise God. When people say, "She have bad hair, and dat one have good hair," my mother always said, "There is no such thing as bad hair or good hair. It's just different types." So I said to myself, the talk is not bad either. How can everything be bad about our people. These are the people that I know and love. You know, you read about the whites a lot in school. We were never taught much Jamaican geography, not much Jamaican history. We were singing English folk songs; we were doing the English dances. I was doing Scottish waltzes before I knew how to do "Come Mek Mi Hol' Yuh Han'." The teachers discouraged our folk dances. So, I always asked myself how it could be bad.

LB: It seems to me your mother's view of the world and her values were passed on to you.

MISS LOU: She passed that on to me. Yes. The way in which people treated each other. We were all friends. You know, I was remembering. (Laughs.) I'll tell you the joke about this teacher. These teachers were teaching us obedience, and there was this poem "Casa Blanca": "The boy stood on the burning deck. . ." Oh, child, we went through that. And the teacher told us, "The boy obeyed his father," and all of that. So I went home in the evening now, and I walked into the sewing room. Everybody used to call me Miss Bibs. They said, "Well, now Miss Bibs, wha happen today? I answered, "I learned about obedience." And it sweet mi now for hear mi to di people dem, "The boy stood on the burning deck." And I went on with this thing, man. And when I finished it, I said: "You see that, the teacher said, the boy obeyed his father. He even died." Hear a little old woman, "She a wait fi somebody clap her. Poor ting. Him time did come." (Laughs.)

LB: Had nothing to do with obedience.

MISS LOU: Had nothing to do with obedience, for "him time did come." It struck me, you know. "Him time did come."

LB: So it seems to me that the feedback you got from these people reinforced what you valued, and gave you more of an insight into life.

MISS LOU: Yes, a great deal of insight into life. Well, I tell you now. As you see, I like to tell stories. Suh mi use to do yuh know. An' mi use to try it out on de people in de sewing room same way, yuh know. Go een man, and tell dem story and ting. And I found that I had the gift of laughter. Anyhow, I used to go and try out my little things, and tell them jokes, and tell them stories. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Copyright © by Lilieth Lejo Bailey




BIO - Louise Bennett-Coverly

Date of Birth (DOB): 9/7/1919
From: Jamaica
Best Known for: Patios Poetry, Folklorist

Bio: The Hon. Louise Simone Bennett-Coverly is quite possibly Jamaica’s most loved Folklorist, Writer, Artiste. Miss Lou, as she is affectionately known received her education from Ebenezer and Calabar Elementary Schools, St. Simon’s College, Excelsior College, Friends College (Highgate).

She was a resident artiste from 1945 to 1946 with the “Caribbean Carnival”. She has appeared in leading humorous roles in several Jamaican Pantomimes and television shows. She has traveled throughout the World promoting the culture of Jamaica by lecturing and performing and although her popularity is International, she enjoys a celebrity status in her native Jamaica, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Her Poetry has been published on several times most notably Jamaica Labrish – 1966, Anancy and Miss Lou 1979. Among her many recordings are: Jamaica Folksongs – Folkways 1953, Jamaica Singing Games 1953, Miss Lou’s Views 1967, Listen to Louise 1968, Carifesta Ring Ding 1976 The Honorable Miss Lou 1981, Miss Lou Live – London 1983 andYes Me Dear Island Records.

She has been married to Eric Winston Coverley since May 30, 1954 and has 1 son and several adopted children. She enjoys Theatre, Movies, Auction sales and continues to reside in Kingston. On Jamaica’s independence day 2001, The Honorable Mrs Louise Bennett-Coverly was been appointed as a Member of the Order of Merit (OM) for her invaluable and distinguished contribution to the development of the Arts and Culture.


Afiwi.com's complete profile on Louise Bennett-Coverly

 


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