Some Things Are Important

The other day, Toots and the Maytals’ classic ‘Pomp and Pride’ (that image on the video doesn’t look like Toots Hibbert to me — hmmm, someone needs to learn that not all Black men look alike) popped into my memory-worm register, and I’ve been thinking about it and singing along since then. Nothing so surprising about that — par for the course, that a geriatric rocker should recall fondly the music of his twenties. And also not surprising, the non-Reverend Dr Adam rolled her eyes at this, particularly since I didn’t know all the words and was making up gibberish to fill the gaps.

So to satisfy my curiosity and to give Margaret something different to roll her eyes about, I decided quickly to look up the lyrics. Google Play covered all the relatively intelligible (to my time and volume-abraded ears) lyrics, and provided for one of the trickier lines

Is it an opulin, Iceland, calm down

Now, you have to admire Toots’s poetical ingenuity, working Iceland into a song about popular discontent with luminance (‘when they see it, they see it’s not bright’; cf. also ‘Tropical Iceland’ by the Fiery Furnaces). But ‘opulin’? Sorry, that — in the words of another line of the song — that can’t be right.

No worries — a quick look at another database provides

Ease it and happily, nicely calm down

which works well and seems plausible in context. I should also note that yet another source suggests ‘Isolyn, Jacqueline, Everton, come down’ — but mixing football teams with women’s names seems unlikely to me.

This all points to the problems of bridging Jamaican pronunciation and patois with [British] standard English, the classic article on which being Steve Cotler’s ‘Draw Your Brakes — A Jamaican Creole Shout,’ which explains the otherwise opaque

Forward and fiaca
Menacle and den gosaca

(‘Opaque,’ that is, to foreign ears.) Not only are the words themselves puzzling (if indeed those are the words in question), but Scotty intones them with an ominous, prophetic intensity. If we don’t know what ‘Forward and fiaca / Menacle and den go sa-ahkah’ means, how are we to respond to its urgency?

Cotler consulted experts (imagine that! In your eye, Michael Gove!) Peter L. Patrick of Essex, and Kenneth Bilby of the Smithsonian, who explained that

“Forward and payaaka, manhangle (manhandle) and den go saaka.”

In the “youth man slang” of the time, “payaaka” was a verb, meaning “to take away another man’s woman/girlfriend.” In this “slang,” “saaka” meant “to fuck.” So the song’s intro meant, “go and take away a next man’s girl, grab her and then go have sex with her.”

So if this be prophecy, I guess I will fall far short of its mandates (and will not proclaim it so ardently when The Harder They Come comes round on my playlist). Good to know, right?

And while we’re on the topic of difficult-to-parse accent-and-patois expressions, what (you will probably ask) (actually, you won’t have thought of this, but I’m putting my thoughts in your mouth since it’s my blog, so there) ‘But what about the beginning of ‘007 (Shanty Town)’ by the giant Desmond Dekker?’ I applaud your good taste — I too am a great admirer to Desmond Dekker — and I too have had difficulty figuring out what’s going on in the song.

As it turns out once one investigates the lyrics, the song concerns rude boys who have been released from custody (‘them out of jail’ — Dekker pronounces the noun with more of an ‘ee’ sound, as happens in some Scottish patterens of pronunciation), who are obliged to behave themselves as part of the conditions for their release (‘them must get bail’, likewise leaning toward ‘ee’). This also clarifies the ‘weel’ sound at the end of the first line — it’s ‘wail’ — and the line ‘Dem rude boys deh pon probation.’ ‘At ocean eleven’? Well, not all mysteries are easily explained.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. You didn’t address the biggest problem with the “lyrics” to this song that are all over the internet. Maybe this comment will spur a new post. (fingers crossed!)

    Everywhere I’ve looked, the internet suggests that the lyrics are “Have your pomps and pride” which is ridiculous. Why would Toots be telling us to be vain (or ostentatious) and proud? The lyric is clearly “off your pomps and pride.” When you take it in context with the adjacent lyrics this makes even more sense. “Come down off your pomps and pride,” Toots is telling us “Come down off your high horse.”

    This is, of course, my opinion. But I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

    1. David,

      ‘Come down’ makes sense especially in combination with ‘off your pomps and pride’, though I do still like the way ‘calm down’ flows from the proposed ‘Ease it and happily, nicely…’. In either case, though, we can agree that ‘Have’ is not right relative to ‘pomp and pride’.

      I am mystified not only by some of the lyrics I cherish, but also by the reluctance some writers have about permitting their words to be reported on the internet. For instance, the song ‘New Boy’ by the Connells has peculiarly truncated and inaccurate lyrics all over the Web. Now, part of the explanation for widespread error and inaccuracy comes from newer sites scraping older sites for their lyrics, and perhaps also by readers checking newer iterations of the lyrics against older, faulty lyrics. If you were a writer about whose lyrics people cared at all, wouldn’t you want the Web to report your words accurately?

      Returning to your intervention, though, I firmly agree that the connecting word in question is more likely ‘off’ than ‘have’ — ‘have’ in fact, seems bizarrely inappropriate in context. I’m still inclining slightly toward ‘calm’ rather than ‘come’. Well listened!

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