There are all sorts of strange tales about my song Not A Blade O’ Grass. Some I’ve heard second-hand, but some folks, believe it or not, have actually come to me directly to categorically assert that they know exactly how the song came about. A couple times, I’ve been told, “Burnham pay yuh to write dat song.” One fellow, fully blocked, told me that Mr Burnham had even suggested some of the words. In fact, while Brother Forbes certainly used the song for his own ends, he had nothing whatsoever to do with its creation. For that, you have to go to the late Pat Cameron. Here’s the story, unabridged.
Tradewinds were in Guyana on tour in the ’70s while the Venezuela border row was brewing. I had done a long interview with Pat at the radio station in High Street; chatting off the air afterwards, she said to me, “Dave, Guyanese follow your music; you should write something about this Venezuela story, man.” I said to Pat, “Girl, I don’t write those kinds of head-on songs, and this is a delicate subject. Somebody else should do it.” But Pat Cameron was a persistent lady. She followed me out to the car continuing to make her case, so I drove off with her notion in mind. On the way back to the hotel, I was thinking about the border issue and its impact on Guyana, and for some odd reason my mind ran to a famous speech by one of the Indian chiefs resisting the white man’s invasion of the American west.
The Indian spoke about his people’s love for their land; that they would not give up one river, not one buffalo, not one valley, not even one blade of grass. In a flash, it hit me; that was the way to write the border song – it should talk about Guyanese love for Guyana and not mention Venezuela at all.
I got back to the Pegasus, borrowed an acoustic guitar from Bobby Hunter, locked myself in the hotel room, and shut off the phone. Some songs can take weeks or months to write; I wrote Blade O’ Grass in about an hour. That’s the first interesting aspect; I had not written a song that fast before, and I haven’t since. The other aspect is that I didn’t fully grasp the reach of what I had written. I knew it was a concise piece, and it was emotional, but those ingredients don’t always result in a great work, so I left Guyana pleased with the song but with no inkling of what was to follow.
Back in Toronto, with Pat Cameron’s premise in mind, we went into the studio and recorded the song, as a single. In addition to the Tradewinds guys, I got my daughter Luana to do the flute part and we played the song with a slow drum beat. Remember that we were a Caribbean band playing mostly win’ down music, but it just felt right to do it at that slow tempo.
I pressed a few copies, 45rpm recording – remember those? – and sent them off to Freddie Abdool, our man in Guyana.
If you’re a Guyanese, you know the rest. The song took off like a savannah fire. At one point, it was the first song played on the radio station every day, and people began referring to it as “Guyana’s second anthem.” Like any successful song, Blade O’ Grass had gone straight to the heart of something Guyanese felt; it was a song they could sing and not offend; it became a craze. Two weeks after it was out, I got a call from the Guyanese Consul in Toronto (Vic Persaud, if I recall) saying that the Mr Burnham wanted to buy 100 copies of the song, and I of course agreed to provide them at cost. I should check on this part of the story some time, but I never got to know precisely how the Kabaka distributed the recordings. I do know that when we came to Guyana around Mash, again on tour, he invited the band to the Cultural Centre for a private session in the meeting room upstairs. In our chat, he told me he loved the song – his favourite line was “not one cuirass” – and at one point he turned to Viola and suggested she “make some curry for the boys,” but that’s another story for another time.
When you write a song, as I mentioned recently with Hooper and Chanderpaul, most of the time you never know where it’s going to go. Blade O’ Grass immediately went to a special place and in a special way, and it has become a song for Guyanese like no other. Thirty-plus years after it came out, Guyanese know the words and even the arrangement – they will “lala” the introductory flute lines and they will stand up and sing the chorus word for word. Many times when we perform it, I move the band away from the mike and let the crowd sing the chorus; it’s their song in their language about their place, and they own it.
They will sing some of my other songs – Cricket in the Jungle; Honeymooning Couple; You Can’t Get; Boyhood Days, etc – but not like Blade. That one they stand together, arms around each other, and send it up like an anthem. To see a crowd of people, sometimes far from their homeland, in that state from a song, is a very special experience. Almost every time it happens it gives me goose bumps; a couple times it has brought water to mi eye.
A final piece: when the song was raging, on one of our trips here, the government asked Tradewinds to play at the square where Philip Moore’s wonderful Cuffy monument stands. The song was like gasolene and match with the crowd – you only had to play the intro line and they were off – so there was this eruption when we started it, and there were thousands ringing the stage, many of them singing with us. It was live on radio; it was euphoric. As we got to the second verse – “We love the open country of the Rupununi…” – I spotted a youngster in front, about 10 years old or so, singing his heart out with us, so I pulled him up on stage, lowered the microphone and got him singing the chorus by himself.
When he got to the end he sang, “Not one cuirass; we guh bus’ dey ass.” There was an enormous explosion from the crowd; they must have heard the roar all by Bourda. People were jumping up; a few were literally rolling on the ground.
So to Pat Cameron, “Whatever part of Heaven you are, take a bow – you had a hand in this.”