My attention has been drawn to a recent Stabroek News guest editorial (“Really Dr. Dabydeen?”) expressing some dismay over comments from Dr. David Dabydeen, our Ambassador to China, regarding one of my songs, “Not a Blade of Grass”. The background here is that, earlier this month, in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, the BBC World Service had produced a programme entitled “Com-monwealth Connections” wherein prominent cultural personalities from the Commonwealth had been asked to choose a piece of their country’s music which had special meaning for them. Dr. David Dabydeen was featured on the programme featuring Guyana, and he had singled out “Not a Blade of Grass” as a Guyanese song that inspires him, and in an introductory comment he cited it as an example of our tradition of social and topical commentary in music. In a somewhat wider view, however, Dr. Dabydeen said “the song was about the independence of Guyana and a resistance to a particular border dispute we had with Venezuela.” The subject of Stabroek News’ guest editorial’s dismay is that he then contends that Not a Blade of Grass “is really a song sung for Britain because it’s about our independence, it’s about the centuries of resistance and collisions we had with Britain before we could become independent in 1966.” He says, “It’s about how, as an independent people, we have to start valuing our landscape, our local habits, our local speech, so that all that shame that we had as a colonised people, as a people who are descendants of slaves and coolie labour, we have to purge ourselves of and really recover our self esteem and self confidence and to create out of that sense of freedom something positive. When this song addresses Britain, at depth, it really is the Empire singing back and saying, look, we are now independent, we will never go back, and we will create new and creative links with Britain…”
I must begin by saying that, putting myself in Dr. Dabydeen’s shoes, I can understand the difficulty he must have been facing in this programme in that he clearly had to come up with some platform of familiarity for his Commonwealth audience. It is a dilemma I have faced in front of North American audiences trying to present Tradewinds songs which are sometimes new to them. One often has to find a premise, or parallel, in order to explain a song like Copycats or Boyhood Days to a virgin audience, and it often proves a formidable task.
On the other hand, still in Dr. Dabydeen’s shoes, I would then have approached the writer of the song in question seeking the verification or otherwise of the premise I had come up with. Nothing like that came my way. As the owner of the copyright of the song, I was asked by the BBC some months ago for permission to use the music, but no other input was sought from me. Had I been approached, I would have said two things: Dr. Dabydeen is correct that the song was indeed “in the tradition of topical and social commentary in music” (although I would have added that that form is now close to extinct), but I would have been at odds with his contention that Blade was “really a song sung for Britain because it’s about our independence, it’s about the centuries of resistance and collisions we had with Britain before we could become independent in 1966.” This was never even remotely “a song sung for Britain” by any stretch of the imagination. This was not, as Dr. Dabydeen proposed, “an empire singing back, and saying, look, we are now independent, we will never go back, we will never go back, and we will create new and creative links with Britain.” While those may be contentions held by others, I was not engrossed with such missions as I wrote the song. It may have been triggered by a border controversy, but Not a Blade of Grass is simply a case of Guyanese people expressing fervently and passionately their love for Guyana and for things Guyanese. It does not mention “border” or “armies” or “violence”. The world “Venezuela” is nowhere in the song, nor is the word “collision” or “dispute”. Indeed, someone can come to that song for the first time with no knowledge of the Guyana/Venezuela situation and still embrace the song totally, even without being knowledgeable about some of the ethnic terms it contains – jamoon; kreketeh; guinep, etc.
Ultimately, a disagreement on how a particular song is seen is not particularly upsetting to me – interesting or amusing but not upsetting. I have long discovered that (a) the true artist has to find “a way”, or a concept, or an approach to present his/her work and that (b) that way can be interpreted differently by different persons for a variety of reasons which one has to assume are well-intentioned albeit misinterpreted. “Not a Blade of Grass” was a 3-minute song, written on an inspiration flash, in the space of a few hours, as a patriotic love-of-country song. It came to popularity that way, and 34 years later Guyanese still sing it fervently with me that way. To interpret it as more than that leaves me to ask, “Are we talking about the same song?”