Miss Lou – Jamaica’s Most Cherished National Treasure
Published:Tuesday | July 26, 2016 | 12:00 AM Roy Black
Today marks the 10th anniversary since the passing of Jamaica’s legendary folklorist, actress, vocalist, comedienne, and social commentator, the Honourable Louise Bennett-Coverley O.M.
Considered as Jamaica’s most cherished national treasure, she has the enviable distinction of championing Jamaica’s dialect and culture in the face of much criticism. Her pioneering work has led to the acceptance of the Jamaican dialect (sometimes referred to as patois) as a legitimate language. Prior to Bennett-Coverley’s heroics, patois was looked upon as degrading loose talk, careless speech, and a sign of low breeding.
From as early as her pre-teen years, the legendary folklorist displayed an interest in the speech pattern of the common man and would record interesting quotes in an ever-present notebook she carried around. When she reached home, she would convert them into rhymed commentaries. These commentaries, she got the opportunity to expose at school concerts while attending St Simons College and Excelsior High School during the 1930s. It was at one of these concerts at Excelsior High School in 1939 that Bennett was spotted by actor and talent scout Eric Coverley. Impressed by her performance, Coverley enrolled her in the annual Christmas morning concert at the Ward Theatre. Her performance again won the hearts of many and she was well on her way into the world of theatre. She earned her first professional fee of one guinea, or one pound and one shilling, which was a substantial amount for a debutante in those days. As the years slipped by, Bennett became a major player in the annual Jamaica National Pantomime in which Coverley was also deeply involved, and it brought the two closer together.
Bennett’s transition from being just a business partner to becoming a marriage partner was dramatically related by Coverley: In one of the most unusual proposals, Coverley, after dropping Bennett off from one of their shows, and having to rush to catch the next transport home, nonchalantly said to her: “Louise, I can’t stop a minute to talk with you. It seems that I will just have to marry you.” A startled Bennett retorted: “Coverley, is that the way you propose? That could never be a proposal”.
But in a real sense, it was, as after 17 years of friendship, they tied the knot in 1954.
Miss Lou has authored several works in the Jamaican dialect that include Anancy stories, dialect verses, and nursery rhymes. She appeared in several movies, acting in starring roles in the 1981 film Hands off the Island. She was also involved in a number of musical compositions, including Evening Time, Use Your Head and Long Time Gal, while publishing several books of poems. From 1968 to 1980, she hosted the popular children’s programme Ring Ding at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation. Her acting roles with Ranny Williams on The Lou and Ranny radio show was a must-listen for radio enthusiasts in the 1960s.
Bennett-Coverley’s hard-to-get collections and rare pieces are contained in a set of social commentaries that she did for radio in the 1960s, many of which criticised thestatus quo in a humorous way. In one of the commentaries, she humorously and satirically chided successive governments for not making adequate arrangements to harness the Corporate Area’s water supply. She was in her element then as she asked: “Is wha happen to di dam dem what we got inna Jamaica, eh sah? My Auntie Roachie nearly get pus tisik last week after all the rain-falling, road-flooding and river-comedungings fe hear newspaper sey ‘the water in the dam has not risen or improved’. Cooyah! Auntie Roachie sey that dem dam de a defamate rain character and a gi rain bad name and gwan to the public like rain a keep malice with dam. I think the dam mussa have a leak,” she concluded.
Among her major awards were an MBE from the British Government in 1960; The Norman Manley award for excellence in 1972; The Order of Jamaica in 1974; an honorary degree of Doctor of letters from the University of The West Indies in 1983; Doctor of letters from York University in 1998; and The Order of Merit from the Jamaican Government in 2001. What further credentials does one need to quality one for being a national hero?