− USA, Jamaica and Australia
Kingston Street Cries and Something About Their Criers 1927
This is the text of a lecture delivered in Kingston in 1927 by the Jamaican scholar Astley Clerk.
THE fight for existence on land, in air, and beneath the sea is fierce, but it is only on land that we are treated, as far as we know, to a musical illustration of the Christ-taught petition, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. For what are street-cries but a human rendering of that well-known and daily-repeated prayer?
If it were not that I feel that, as far as Kingston goes, it is incorrect to say so, I would be inclined to assert positively that street-cries are the pulse of the musical ability of the people, and that Jamaicans love music no one can deny, yet, strange to say, the itinerant vendors of Kingston do not demonstrate this love in the, as a rule, unmusical monotones in which the majority of our street-cries are chanted today. But, monotoned or sung, they are attractive to our visitors – in fact, some of the most amusing are those which, like the Chimney Sweep’s call, the Scissors mender, etc., are proclaimed on one note – but it is the innate and possibly unconscious art of the criers which lifts these and similar cries above those of the ordinary monotonic utterances heard on our streets and lanes.
‘One listens,’ wrote Bacon and Aaron in their The New Jamaica, ‘with interest to the various street cries, each one ending with “gwine by,” ’ which is doubtless a reminder that all things in this world are but transitory after all. Or, what a splendid chance for the temperance lecturer to take his text from the call that rouses him in the morning: “Wi pi, chapai pi, whisky bot’l gwi’ by.” ‘Could you guess,’ they ask their readers, ‘that when translated this means “Wine pint, champagne pint, whiskey bottle going by,” and that the enigma is uttered by a woman whose business is the collection of bottles?’
Not only do these cries prove of interest to our visitors, but they, on their part, give us who are a daily part of Kingston’s life, much amusement because of the errors which often embellish the often hastily written reports of the ‘ships that pass in the night’. You and I know the bottle gatherer would never announce that such goods as she wants to buy are going by! She would preferably chant in her natural voice,
PINDARS OR PEANUTS
Very few of the many books written on Jamaica by those who have visited her shores make any reference to Pindars. Rampini, however, in his Letters from Jamaica does. He writes:
Night had come upon us suddenly . . . we passed several men with little glass models of houses, brilliantly illuminated on their heads, yelling out what sounded to us like “I scream” at the pitch of their unmusical voices. They were, however, only vendors of ice cream, a luxury which, strange to say, is to be got in this burning land at no other hour of the day. Then came by a women with a basket of roasted pindars, or ground nuts, on her head. Of all the street cries we had heard during the day, this was the only one which had either music or rhythm about it. It was a plaintive little melody in the minor key, not very appropriate to the words, it must be mentioned, but it came prettily and we rather regretted when she turned the corner and her
Pinday buy, young gentleman!
Pindar buy, young ladies!
Pindar buy, young gentleman!
Pindar, pindar, buy!
was heard no more.
The words that the writer puts into the pindar woman’s mouth differ from those I was accustomed to hear in my early days, and the tune which he says was a ‘plaintive little melody not very appropriate to the words’ could certainly not have been the same bright, cheery tune which I used to hear and which you will hear later on. True, in the minor but just sufficient to make it entrancing. Words and music as I was accustomed to hear them in the late seventies, some ten years after Rampini first heard our cries, were thus sung by the lads – I have never known the pindar seller to be ought but lads – who sold them:
After the pindar or peanut boy (for it is one and the same thing) has bought his nuts, the fruit or eating part of which is covered with a shell easily broken by pressure of the fingers, he roasts them until they are properly done, then he places them in his basket and carries them about the city to the cry you just heard.
Today, although the peanut boy does not usually cry his goods in anything as musical a manner as the pindar boy of the past, yet this method of carrying them, about is, some say, a great advance on his predecessor’s of forty years ago. Twelve or fourteen years back, soon after our ears had been assailed by a shrill pipe-like whistle, caused by steam escaping from a funnel, we would see a diminutive top-covered handcart, pushed by the peanut vendor approaching, and hear his matter-of-fact, rollicking:
Because of its continuous shrill piping, a sound beloved by the children, the cart was execrated by almost all adults. The nuts were served hot and direct from the pan, which was kept on a coal fire in the cart. Today, the cart is seldom seen, the whistle, due to passing of the City Law prohibiting their use, is never heard. Why the old and familiar cheery call has been ousted by the present day see-saw cry I have not been able to discover.
At Cross Roads the sellers, a few years ago, would bring the nuts, neatly wrapped in penny cones, to the passengers waiting in the cars, or standing on the sidewalks, and on one occasion, I heard a youngster give this call as he moved along:
To earn their little profit, these lads tramps many and many a mile through the dusty streets of our metropolis, starting between 5 and 6 in the evening and getting back home between 12.30 to 1 o’clock next morning.
Sometimes they may be seen in twos and threes, and then their work is attended with a good deal of friendly jostling as to who will secure the customer – then if the latter is at all cranky and treat them as a joke, they become a nuisance.
The nuts are bought at 2d per quart and sold at 6d, so after deducting labour, wear and tear of cart, damage to shoes, you will find that profit, anywhere from 1/6 to 2/– per night is not princely, but it is a living and an honest one.
There is yet another peanut cry, very clever and very musical, which I often hear of late in and about Brentford Town and Cross Roads and which Mr. Campbell assures me he has heard in Kingston also. While he is illustrating it vocally, you too may discover that you know it:
‘Pearney’ and ‘Pearnerner’ are evidently little jokes on the part of this crier, who is apparently trying to link up his peanuts and his self-made words. Speaking about this particular lad, my friend Mr. Campbell remarked, ‘Regarding this Peanut Boy, he is unique, inasmuch as he has no imitators – and perhaps this may provide an answer to the oft-asked question “Is the Jamaican musical?” I was so struck with the tunefulness of this lad’s call, that I endeavoured to find out from others of his ilk if they knew his tune. Most of them admitted that they did not know it, they had heard it, but have never tried to sing it or improve on it because they could do neither. To appreciate the character of this lad’s song he must be seen and heard, as no written note can convey the nasal, though not unpleasant quality of the tune, or the devil-may-care abandon he throws into the voice.’
Ramphal refers to the ice cream vendors of his day (1869) and I cannot omit those of today.
As a boy in Kingston I was always amused at the cry of these young men – minors were not permitted then to cry their goods about the city. The advent of the many palatial ice cream [parlours] and the small carts in which snow-ball and friscos are sold have, however, almost crushed out the ice-cream vendor. The contents of the snow-ball carts are a great source of pleasure to our peasantry while the carts are as great a source of amusement to our visitors who are usually tickled to death as they read the quaint names painted on them, such as “War Baby”, “Little Sister”, “Little Dan”, etc.
The sellers of ice cream, snow balls etc. are seldom local but they make the welkin ring with the continual tintinnabulation of the bells they carry to attract the attention of likely customers.
In the days before I owned a moustache, starch was sold in Kingston as it is today. The starch was made the same way, the vendors are still the same sex, women, but the cry has changed. A quarter of a century ago, the Kingston visitor was treated to a decidedly pretty little tune . . .
Strange that this interesting and catchy cry be heard no more on our thoroughfares, at least I have not heard it for many a long year, although a lady-friend to whom I sang it told me that she had heard it as late as 1912. Well that is 15 years ago. Can our starch sellers, nay, all our street vendors of 1927 not realise that a really musical and pretty cry is a help to the quick sale of their wares? Today, our ears are treated to the dirge-like wail
a cry which usually sends the members of the home who do not belong to the house-wife department into the uttermost part of the backyard, so mournful and plaintive it is.
Winnifred James, writing in The Mulberry Tree, tells us:
The three things that the Jamaican peasant seems to love more than anything else are starch, words of four syllables and religion. Unless you send eternal and unremitting weekly pleadings, everything you wear is returned to you starched, and what it more, raw-starched. My handkerchiefs are pieces of cardboard, my nightgowns are hair-shirts, and my linen dresses are plaster-casts . . . I would like to have the starch monopoly for the West Indies if all the islands are like Jamaica.
Miss James’s experience is not that of suffering Kingstonians of today. She had to much, we cannot get enough starch . . .
Starch selling is wholly and solely a ‘female’ avocation among the people. She buys the cassava in the market, peels, washes and grates it, and then extracts the starch with cold water, leaving the ‘head’ or fibrous part. It is then put to settle, the starch falling to the bottom: the water is then drawn off and the starch is afterwards put in the sun to dry for a day or two. The seller than packs her tray and starts her weary walk usually in the early mornings so as to catch the washerwoman . . . it is then, as a rule, that we hear the present-day cry of:
or as a variant
Man-like I used to wonder what ‘bone-dry’ starch was. Several ladies have since informed me that it is a very dry powdery starch which is ever much more economical than the ordinary damp starch which is also vended.
Besides their profit which is never superabundant, the local starch-seller after drying and pounding the ‘head’ which is not used to make starch, sifts it, and makes it into dumplings, pone, etc. thus adding to her daily bread and, perhaps, to her profits.
How well do I remember the familiar and pleasing cry of the pear sellers of my childhood days. How could I forget so happy a cry?
In a clear, high, but not strident voice, she – it was always a woman, never a man, – would offer her goods to the housewife waiting for just this one addition before she despatched the luncheon tray to the hungry husband or son at . . . How well the cry
used to charm my young ears, for like a true Jamaican I was, and needless to add, am still a passionate lover of this ‘food of the gods’ . . . For years, however, I have missed the musical ripe pear fe breakfus, ripe pear and in its place Kingston and her visitors are regaled with the ordinary chant cry:
The pear seller is always a woman, she, if she is fortunate enough to have a tree growing in her yard, meets the country-woman as high up as she can and the further from the city the better bargain she can drive. Starting early in the mornings, for ripe pears are a breakfast necessity when they are in season, she bears her purchases to town, and trudges the streets and lanes to the words and tune just sung.
This last chant is also used by the great army of fruit and vegetable sellers, so that again and again throughout the day’s work our ears are vocally saluted with the cry,
Yellow-heart breadfruit gwine pass
Lucy yam gwine pass, eh, de dry Lucy yam gwine pass
Sweet orange gwine pass
Green banana gwine pass, etc.
As a boy listening to similar chants, I was as much struck with the slip-slop of the san-pattas on the feet of the women as with their song. To me it was an accomplishment which has ever been associated with the memory of the cry – an accomplishment which, today, is heard no more, lost by the earnest endeavours of our lately departed governor Sir Leslie Probyn who, successfully, instilled it into the heads of the mass that they should wear boots, if possible at home but always in public.
When in season, and it usually is in season, the coconut trade is one that brings, especially since the end of the Great War, a fair return to the vendors . . .
As early as seven in the mornings the dwellers of the metropolis, and its suburbs, see a mule-drawn cart wending its way about their thoroughfares, especially those of the business section of the city, the driver knowing where to quickly get rid of his stock. Nor does it require a sight of the fruit, heaped in the cart, on the front seat of which the driver is perched, nor his drawn-out call of:
to tell the passer-by what that cart contains for the well-known willowy branches which are hoisted on the back and sometimes each side of the cart are silent salesmen, and quietly and advantageously advertise and sell the goods.
Every now and then the driver is stopped by some thirsty one . . . and a 1½d and a nut change hands . . . in the days of old the price was a penny per nut . . . Coconut vendors of all criers, seem to vie with each other for variety and their cries are very numerous, and for this reason – our coconut seller realises that his own customers will refuse to buy from other sellers, but wait to hear his own particular cry – this very frequently happens. Here, for instance, is an appreciable variety, and the seller, always a male, so surprised me with the brightness of his outbursts:
as to necessitate the instant use of my note book and pencil.
I have stated that coconut sellers are always men, never women – I must, however, amend that statement as, just before I delivered this talk in 1914 I actually heard a female coconut seller . . . she was quite near my residence in Brentford Town – she had not cart, but carried a tray on her head, in which a half dozen of the dried fruit were displayed. Her cry, drawled out as much as possible, was entirely in the minor.
From about 7 to 11 a.m. during the months of March to July, the visitor to Kingston sees a great many girls going about the streets with trays filled with spotted eggs, soon desires to know what sort of eggs is being sold, is gratified as the seller cries:
Many stop her and exchange their pennies for hard boiled eggs seasoned with black pepper and salt.
The booby egg trade is, like the fish-sellers’ calling, dependent on another. There are neither boobies nor booby eggs in Jamaica but miles away from her shores. Consequently those who gather and those who sell off are different people . . . To reach these distant cays (off the south coast) a schooner, two masted, is chartered and ten to twelve men engaged by the lessee of the island.
Leaving Kingston about 6 p.m. on a day during the season, they do not return before four or five days. Often they meet bad weather and often they run out of the water they have to take with them, thereby enduring the tortures of thirst as the water on the cays, being brackish, is fit for cooking but not for drinking purposes.
The eggs of the Sooty Tern and the Brown Noddy are gathered and packed by the gatherers into boxes holding five hundred to a thousand, and to prevent breakage are well stuffed with the Sanfeer leaves. Loading their schooner with as many boxes as it can carry they set sail for home, and after two days, drop anchor at one of the schooner wharves where they unload.
A week or two before the boats leave for their gathering, the wharf agents have been busy selling tickets to wholesale buyers, and just as soon as the schooner docks, the ticket-holders are put in possession of their purchases. These wholesalers either sell again to the girls and women we hear on the streets crying ‘Booby eggs, Booby eggs’ or hire them at so much per week to sell for them.
THE NEWSPAPER BOY
It was only a shrill, childish treble that I heard as I drove to my work one morning but the cry, out of the ordinary and full of entreaty, attracted me, and I immediately jotted it down in my notebook:
The crier was a boy, a mite of no more than eight, I would say.
Before the war, the newspaper vendors used to be principally lads between the ages of fifteen and twenty, but since then a great army of boys from seven to fifteen have joined the ranks of newspaper vendors, all trying to earn their ½d per paper.
The earlier of them need not turn to work before 4 a.m. in time to get his papers and catch the first cars which leave at 5 a.m., but as a rule 5.30 is time enough.
The cry of the unmusical seller is:
the same chant we are today hearing from almost all our street criers, very same, very monotonous; hence as I walk along I come across such musical and tuneful variations as my little Gleaner friend treated me to and as another seller pleased me with on a further occasion as he sang out in a bold lively voice:
(a newspapers now, unfortunately, no more).
1. i.e. tram cars.
2. Mr. Granville Campbell, noted musician of the day who had set ‘Kingston Street Cries’ to music (Piano Fantasia).
3. Ball of shaved ice over which syrup is poured, called snow-cone today.
4. i.e. Avocado pear.
5. Kind of sandal.