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Behind the folklore

BY HOWARD CAMPBELL Observer senior writer

Sunday, May 25, 2014    

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SPORTSMEN like Arthur Wint and Herb McKenley were most schoolboys' heroes in Jamaica during the late 1940s.

For a 12-year-old Mervyn Morris, Louise Bennett was equally impressive.

Morris re-introduces the folk legend in his new book, Miss Lou: Louise Bennett and Jamaican Culture, which was released in April by Ian Randle Publishers.

In it, Jamaica's poet laureate reflects on the life and work of Miss Lou, the buxom, exuberant folklorist who was an unapologetic advocate for Jamaican and West Indian culture in the years of British colonialism.

"What I wanted to do was pull together the basic line of Louise's life which I've never seen in print to this degree. The book is primarily meant to be attractive to all," Morris told the Sunday Observer last week.

Less than 100 pages in text, 'Miss Lou' looks at her early years in Kingston, and how her time at St Simon's College and Excelsior High School in Kingston fashioned an unyielding passion for the Jamaican dialect.

Morris also looks at Miss Lou's stints in the United States and United Kingdom during the 1940s. In the latter, she exposed Caribbean culture on the British Broadcasting Corporation's Overseas Service.

She rubbed shoulders with singer/actor Harry Belafonte and Irving Burgie in the US. That duo later collaborated on the big-selling Calypso! album.

Around the time Louise Bennett was establishing herself as a cultural activist, Mervyn Morris was living at Maxfield Avenue in Kingston and preparing to enter Munro College. He had just discovered her work.

Sixty-six years later, Morris is professor emeritus at the University of the West Indies' Mona campus and concerned that her achievements is in danger of being lost to a generation of Jamaicans.

He says more needs to be done to spark a renaissance.

"If we promote the audio-visual Miss Lou, that would help. Her presence on (videos) Yes M'Dear (Miss Lou Live) and Lawd... Di Riddim are striking," he said.

The newspaper article, On Reading Louise Bennett, Seriously, was Morris' first look at Miss Lou's contribution to Jamaican and Caribbean culture.

He eventually became good friends with her and her husband Eric Coverley and kept in touch with them after they moved to Toronto, Canada in the 1980s.

Both died there, Coverley in 2002 and Miss Lou in July 2006 at age 86. She is buried at National Heroes Park in Kingston.

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