Popular songs are normally ephemeral. They are generally like fashion – here today and gone tomorrow despite their impact and success during the time that they command popular acclaim. But many of them rise above that to achieve a stature approaching excellence when they defy time and remain strong in demand, memory and public interest for long periods. When they make a mark and remain strong decades after release they have moved above being popular and are likely to have achieved greatness. That is the case with so many classics by Bob Dylan or Bob Marley, and for Guyanese it is the case with Eddy Grant.
The evergreen hit ‘Not A Blade of Grass’ by Guyanese Dave Martins is one of those. It has not palled since it rocked the nation at the time of its release in the 1970s. It was ‘number one’ on the ‘charts,’and as Martins describes it, “the song took off like a savannah fire.” In his words, “it became a craze” and “at one point it was the first song played on the radio station every day.” (‘So It Go,’ July 29). But from the time “when the song was raging” it has sustained a high profile and has become a fixture in Guyana decades after and is now regarded unofficially as the nation’s second national anthem.
The song was back at the centre of national attention – not that it ever left it – just before the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland in July-August. The BBC featured it in a series called ‘Commonwealth Connections’ aired in July as part of the build-up to the Games. Athletes and other personalities from Commonwealth countries expected to take part in the Games were asked to select a piece of music that inspired them and introduce it on the BBC World Service feature. David Dabydeen, Professor of English at Warwick, one of the most prominent writers and academics in the UK, and now Guyana’s Ambassador to China, was one of those asked, and he chose The Tradewinds’ ‘Not A Blade Of Grass’ as his selection of an inspiring piece that is representative of the Guyanese nation.
What Dabydeen had to say drew sharp criticism from the Stabroek News in an editorial captioned ‘Really Dr Dabydeen?’ The leader expressed some bafflement at Ambassador Dabydeen’s interpretation of the lyrics and choice of language as a diplomat. It expressed dismay at how he could have arrived at his explanation of the meaning of the song which he placed as a response by Guyanese to its colonial past, an expression of independence and an example of how “the empire sings back” to its former coloniser. That places the song in the context of the body of literature that emerged out of writers belonging to Britain’s former colonies after the 1960s; literature which is a response to colonialism and neo-colonialism. Such work was referred to by such eminent critics as Salman Rushdie, Helen Tiffin and Homi Babha as “the Empire Writes Back.”
Dabydeen said ‘Not A Blade of Grass’ was talking back to Great Britain, and expressing a strong sense of identity and independence. It was telling the former ‘Mother Country’ that Guyanese have ownership of their land of which they are proud and are not about to give up. The Stabroek editorial dismissed Dabydeen’s account as “post-colonial waffle.”
There were also responses from the Tradewinds songwriter himself, Dave Martins, among others. These were interesting additions to the corpus of Guyanese literary criticism. One important phrase mentioned in the editorial and repeated by Martins was wondering whether we are “speaking about the same song.” This suggests some degree of unity between the leader and the songwriter about how far-fetched the Ambassador’s interpretation must have been. But it also reminds us about the nature of art and its fluid relationships with its audience. Clearly both the editorial and the musician understand literature, and the latter makes a number of correct observations about art and its audience. The editorial’s dismissal of Dabydeen is therefore surprising; it is far beyond being harsh – it is unfair. Where the songwriter is concerned, one should remember the saying “never trust the teller, trust the tale.”
But how would we analyse ‘Not A Blade of Grass’? First, I would not have stuck my neck out as far as Dabydeen did in his assertive statement that the song is addressed to Britain and that is what it is about. However, truly, it is addressed to Britain or any colonial or any aggressive power seeking to colonise or to usurp. Dabydeen gives it a post-colonial reading, but it is not “waffle.” A post-colonial reading is very much appropriate for these lyrics and for the circumstances under which they were composed. Besides, post-colonialism is a relevant and important approach to literature today, particularly Caribbean literature, which was at one time a colonial literature. Critic Edward Baugh has said the literature has undergone considerable “decolonisation”; but very importantly, he says, “the colonial quality in the literature is not something to be outgrown” (Baugh, Critics On Caribbean Literature). It has been fundamental in the shaping of the literature.
To go further, post-colonialism has been one of the most exciting developments in English, African, Indian and West Indian literature. The writers of these nations have made remarkable contributions to literature in English and have put some fire into it. Rushdie, VS Naipaul, Wilson Harris, Ben Okri, Vikram Seth and (yes) David Dabydeen have all been a part of it. So is Dave Martins in this song. In fact even the Stabroek News editorials have indulged in post-colonial discourse. In response to Naipaul winning the Nobel Prize, a Stabroek News editorial severely criticised him using post-colonial discourse and arguments (“waffle”?).
Martins is a sound artist and critic with a very level head and keen sense about the nature of art. He recognised Dabydeen’s reason for putting a strong British context to the song. Dabydeen was speaking to a British audience and felt a need to place the song in context that would have some meaning for them and to which they could relate. So we should not crucify him for it. Martins tells us that the song is “a patriotic love of country song” sung by Guyanese to express this love. “To interpret it as more than that leaves me to ask are we talking about the same song?” Martins is fully aware that something is not right about that position, and said so in a letter to the editor.
Martin Carter writes about poetry, the poet and the audience – “Not in the saying of you are you / said” and “ever yourself you are always / about to be yourself in something else ever with me” (‘Proem’). WH Auden writes about the way the work of the dead poet becomes something else “modified in the guts of the living” (‘The Death of WB Yeats’). Once a poet releases his poem to the public it is no longer his, it becomes theirs and they may even change the relationships between poem and audience, poem and poet. The fact that so much can accurately be seen and read into the poem says something about its superior quality. That is the case with this song which says much more to the audience than the writer intended.
Martins says the song never mentions Venezuela or “collision” or “dispute”. But the fact that it speaks to these things without specific use of the words and manages to respond so creatively to Venezuela’s spurious claim to Guyanese territory without ever mentioning the country makes the song better than even Martins thinks it is. It is called poetic craft.
The song makes heavy use of rhetoric – rhetorical structure. That is a part of its argument and of its defiance. It makes several references to Guyana’s possessions, natural beauty, even to making much of such things as “early morning” “drop of dew” and “drop of rain”. Mixed with the patriotic singing of the natural beauty is the defiance against any invader (including a colonial power like Britain).
All of these are factors that have given the song such longevity. It has outlived ordinary fashionable and ephemeral popular songs to become a Guyanese anthem still with great currency 34 years after its writing. Naipaul once said “my books never go stale. . . because I stick my neck out.” Certainly controversy has helped him. Martins has composed a song with deep statements and good craft. Critics (not post-colonial this time) and psycho-analysts Sigmund Freud, Roman Jacobson, Frederic Jameson, Carl Jung and Karl Marx have outlined the “unconscious” and “the political unconscious” that lies behind the conscious mind of man and elements found in a work of art that the writer did not consciously or deliberately put there. Some of these may be found in ‘Not A Blade of Grass’ which, like language and all art, is subject to interpretation. But it goes to make it a better work.