In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: Songs our families made us listen to repeatedly.
For my entire childhood, and during visits to my parents’ house as an adult, I have been subjected to an unrelenting stream of folk and folk-rock music from the 1950s and ’60s: Peter, Paul And Mary; The Everly Brothers; The Kingston Trio. The latter in particular was and is a favorite of my dad’s, and though he gave it his best effort, his enthusiasm never had its intended effect. (To be fair, having a band’s entire catalog played on repeat over the course of 18 years does tend to erode its charms.)
Two of the original Kingston Trio members grew up in Hawaii, where they learned ukulele and calypso music, so perhaps it was a natural fit for the group to re-animate “Jumbie Jamboree,” often credited to Lord Invader but more likely first performed by Lord Intruder at a carnival in Trinidad in 1953. (The Kingston Trio’s recording begins with a short spoken-word bit calling it “the song that killed calypso” and crediting “Lord Invader And His Twelve Penetrators.” Despite having listened to this song roughly 1.8 million times over the course of 37 years, I did not catch the “Twelve Penetrators” name until researching this piece.)
The Kingston Trio effectively began on the West Coast as a calypso band, whose name and signature striped short-sleeve shirts recalled Jamaican islands and tropical sounds. Though the band sounds today about as calypso-inflected as a rutabaga, with not much more than a terrible clipped faux accent to celebrate “Zombie Jamboree”’s roots, this is the first version that became popular and even beloved in the States. The song that killed calypso, indeed.
But those calypso roots are perhaps more interesting than three white American men singing “Zombie Jamboree” in 1958, only a few years after the song had been popularized by Lord Intruder and other calypso singers in the Caribbean. (Douglas Hall at MTV has done a more thorough history of the song that’s worth a read.) Known as “Jumbie Jamboree,” for the folkloric spirit that causes wild dancing, the song tells the story of a man encountering the dancing jumbies or zombies, depending on the version, and being told he would have to marry a zombie woman. The narrator runs for his life to escape this “bag of bones”: “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 / In the other she’s pointing that she’ll be mine.” (As a side note, despite a long and rich history of zombies in the voodoo cults of West Africa and Haiti, the term “zombie jamboree” didn’t appear until a small but florid notice in Oklahoma’s Miami Daily News-Record on January 18, 1944, which advertised a “Midnight Zombie Jamboree” performance at the Coleman Theatre: “There will be shudders, thrills, hot and cold shivers, goosepimples, plenty of laughs, screams, howls… Never before has the public been privileged to witness such manifestations in the broad light and also in the dark.”)
The song, which traded shudders and thrills for cheap laughs, probably arrived Stateside not via The Kingston Trio, but a couple years earlier, in a recording by none other than acclaimed violinist Louis Farrakhan, under the name The Charmer. The Kingston Trio’s version ushered the song into popular music—and into my dad’s turntable, then CD player, then MP3 player—recorded on the 1958 live album Stereo Concert, so as to capture the group’s carefully practiced but seemingly spontaneous stage banter. The Trio took an already catchy tune, added some humorous call-and-response (“Can you imagine me with a zombie wife?” “Yes!”), and scrubbed it clean of the the gravelly voices that infected the originals with a different, arguably better, kind of spirit. During the first zombie apocalypse, ”Zombie Jamboree” was covered by everybody from The Wailers to Harry Belafonte to Harry Nilsson to Rockapella. (It remains to be seen whether the song will find second life in the current zombie craze.) Perhaps if I’d known all the song’s history as a kid, I wouldn’t have clapped my hands over my ears every time this song came on. Though writing this has probably ensured that my next visit to my parents’ house will be met with the exuberant shouts of “Back to back! Belly to belly! Well I don’t give a damn ’cause I’ve done that already!”