I found a treasure in my collection, and I felt compelled to write about it.
I began collecting vintage Caribbean cloth dolls in the late 1980’s. I love my dolls, simply because, to me, they’re representations of real people. I love people of all cultures. And I love the hand-crafted folk art that people make.
It’s difficult to place dates on my dolls. They’re made of material that degrades over time. Some of them are rather soiled, which could give them the appearance of being older than they actually are. (As long as I am not an expert on cleaning dolls, I will simply continue to dust them, as I have no desire to devalue them through over-cleaning.) This style of dolls has been made for years. They were most likely made to be sold to tourists, to be placed on a shelf and not played with. I’ll just say that my oldest doll was probably made in the 1950’s.
I compared my dolls to what I could find on the interweb, in an attempt to date them, identify their country of origin, and to learn as much as possible about their history and construction. I found a lot more photos than text. — One thing that amazed me was the low prices the dolls seem to command. Perhaps there are more examples than I realize; and that fact keeps their prices low.
My purpose for taking a really good look at my dolls, photographing and researching them, was to prepare a story for this blog site. I wanted to share these beautiful examples of folk art with my readers. It was just going to be another one of my stories where I discuss my various collections.
One thing leads to another: While going through the collection, I noticed one of my old dolls had the words, “Lou”, and “Jamaica” painted on her apron. In searching for that combination of words on the internet, I was happily surprised to discover that my doll was made in tribute to a Jamaican icon whom I had never heard of: “Miss Lou”, or Dr. Louise Bennett-Coverley, the Jamaican folklorist, poet, singer, comedienne, storyteller and activist who has been called the “Mother of Jamaican Culture”. Miss Lou spoke and sang in Jamaican patois while giving countless live, televised and filmed performances. According to the Jamaica Information Service, “Miss Lou raised the dialect of the Jamaican folk to an art level which is acceptable and appreciated by all in Jamaica”.
Miss Lou was born on September 7, 1919 in Kingston, Jamaica (that just happens to be four days after my sainted mother was born). She lived to be 86 years old; and during her long life, many awards were bestowed upon her for her efforts in spreading the Jamaican culture through her teaching, poetry, song and activism. It can be said that she was “given the roses while she lived”. She knew how much she was loved and appreciated. The first week of September is celebrated by many Jamaicans as Miss Lou Week.
Miss Lou performed a style of music called “mento”, which was a precursor to reggae music. It could be called a stripped-down form of the more well-known calypso.
Perhaps you have heard, or heard of The Jolly Boys, a group of very old Jamaican men who perform in the mento style. They were still performing as late as 2014; they released their latest recording in 2010. Miss Lou is not as well-known to American audiences as The Jolly Boys, and they are not that well-known in America. Per Wikipedia, Miss Lou’s most influential recording is probably her 1954 rendition of the Jamaican traditional song “Day Dah Light”. In 1955, Harry Belafonte recorded an arrangement with additional lyrics, entitled “Day-O”, or the “Banana Boat Song” and had a huge hit. So Miss Lou’s influence was great!
Bob Marley Connection: A community in South Florida, U.S.A., celebrates Miss Lou. Every year, Pembroke Pines, Florida presents the Louise Bennett-Coverley Reading Festival, where attendees are treated to a celebration of rich Jamaican culture (song, dance and perspectives of the works and legend of Miss Lou). A mento band, Tallawah Mento Band, played at the 8th annual event, where their performance was given in honor of the 70th birthday of Bob Marley. The great Reggae star is said to have credited Miss Lou’s example with providing the basis for his own use of Jamaican dialect over the objections of early record distributors.
My little Miss Lou doll has a cloth face, hands and body. Her eyes and mouth are painted on. Rather than legs, she has a weighted bottom. In other words, she is a “stump doll”. She has the ability to stand on her own, without the aid of a doll stand. She is costumed like Miss Lou was when she shared her songs and stories in live performances, all over the world. Her yarn hair is partially covered by a plaid scarf; she balances a woven basket of cloth “fruit” on her head. She wears a seed-bead necklace and carries a straw bundle under her arm. (I’m not sure of the significance of the bundle.)
Her beautiful but faded costume consists of a dress made of tropical cloth, protected by a white apron, which is tied in the back just like a real apron would be. And yes, the apron is adorned with the words, “Lou” and Jamaica”. I’m so glad I thought to search for those words on the internet!
I’m not sure who it was, or when it happened, but someone wisely decided to create dolls in Miss Lou’s likeness. The custom continues to this day. You can buy a newly-made Miss Lou doll; however, mine was made sometime in the 1950’s or 1960’s, and it is the only example I have seen that dates back to that period. I love the doll for what it stands for. Because in this case, the doll truly represents a person who lived, and one who made a real contribution to the spreading of folk culture throughout the world.
The Louise Bennett (Miss Lou) version of “Day O” is available and documented in both French and English on the “Jamaica – Mento 1951-1958 album”.
Here is a link to a biography, which although short, gives a lot of good information in a few paragraphs: http://www.vipattractions.com/page.php?pageid=314
Here is Miss Lou singing a Jamaican welcome song, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Fy39wPedmY
Here is a song by the Jolly Boys, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYMceYsIhTQ
Here is one more doll from my collection thrown in as a bonus. It’s faded, but clean.