Rediscovering The Hidden Culture: Folk Songs

Story and Photos by David Bowen, Cultural Officer, Turks & Caicos Tourist Board

In my quest to rediscover the hidden culture of the Turks & Caicos Islands, I’ve become fascinated with our local folk songs and ring games (ring play). Since the beginning of my research throughout the Islands with a number of senior citizens groups, I have collected over 50 songs and I am sure there are many more to be discovered. It is impossible to convey the melody of the songs in print without providing the musical notation. In this article, I want to focus on the issue of folk music in the Turks & Caicos and give you a general insight on the subject.

Many of the songs are based on day-to-day life and actual events that took place in the Islands, so they become a unique source of oral history, local folklore and social commentary. The latest gossip was also expressed in song. Even to this day, there are songs one must be careful of singing in certain gatherings. During my research, the Chief Minister, Honorable Derek Taylor himself advised me to be sensitive and very careful with what songs were chosen to be performed by the cultural group because there are family members still alive who would take offence to having unflattering songs written about someone in their family performed in a public setting.

folkThe tunes and melody of many of our folk songs are derived from British, African and American folk music, ring games, square dances and church hymns. The emphasis on rhythm, as opposed to melody, is a prominent feature of our local folk songs and ring games. With the ripsaw, goatskin drum, shakers and the triangle providing the rhythmic foundation, many songs with varying melodic lines are strung together in a continuous free flow.

Instruments like the accordion, guitar or concertina provide the basic three-chord progression to support the melody. Together with the rhythm and physical response, courtship, language and vocabulary skills are significant ingredients of traditional folk songs and ring games. The ring game “One & Twenty” introduced us to counting up to one hundred and the song “See, The Moon is Shining,” gives the boys and girls during ring play a safe way to express their feelings for each other without it being too obvious to adults.

See see see see, the moon is shining
See see see see, the moon is shining
And I like your eyes, la la la la la la
And I like your face, la la la la la la
And I like your arms, la la la la la la
And I like your hips, la la la la la la

There is no limitation to the list, so it provides the perfect vehicle to tell that special someone what you really like about him or her.
Some folk songs can appear strange and confusing until the full story is told. One such song is a little ditty out of South Caicos called “I Dig There.”

I dig there
Garland dig there
Garland push his finger in my hole
In my hole, in my hole
Garland push his finger in my hole

This song, written by Mr. Julius Jennings, tells the story of two men in South Caicos who went looking for turtle eggs and one of them took the eggs out of a hole his friend had dug up. For many years, most people raised an eyebrow when hearing the song for the first time without knowing that the line, “Garland push his finger in my hole,” was describing someone putting their hand in a turtle hole (nest) looking for eggs. According to Mrs. Tit Malcolm of South Caicos, the two characters in the story were Mr. Clement Seymour and Mr. Sidney Garland. “I Dig There” was a popular song with the ripsaw bands in South Caicos. Joe Robinson and Hugh Fulford featured this song on the album, “Bonefish Biting,” recorded in 1989 with the Turks & Caicos Cultural Group. The album was unfortunately poorly recorded, making it difficult to hear the songs clearly, so it did not make the cultural impact it should have in the schools as a source of reference for local folk music. Next year, the Tourist Board’s Cultural Department plans to record a CD and write a book of local folk and ring games as an ongoing drive to introduce a new cultural curriculum in the education system.

ripsawNot all songs were based on actual events. Some were just plain silly and humorous, while others are ambiguous and have cleverly hidden sexual overtones. The song “Conch Style,” taught to me by my aunt, Mrs. Mary “Titta” Quelch of Overback, Grand Turk, is a good example of a humorous folk song. The “Conch Style” is also a folk dance where the dancer hooks one foot around the back of the other ankle with a quick shuffle step in-between to change legs. Hooking the foot represents the claw or foot of the conch.

Monkey married to baboon sister
Kiss his lips and make it blister
What you think they had for dinner
Black eye peas and monkey liver
Conch style, oh aunt Johnny
Conch style, oh aunt Johnny

This song is obviously African in origin, for we have no monkeys or baboons in these Islands. This is a good example of the mixture of the two cultures as the conch and black-eyed peas formed a basic part of the local Turks & Caicos diet in the early years.

The songs “Sugar You Come,” a dialog between a boy and a girl and “Bonefish Biting,” about young single women, are good examples of the ambiguity of some of the tunes.

Sugar You Come
Boy: Sugar you come?
Girl: Yes I come again
Boy: What you bring?
Girl: Cake and sugar plum
Boy: Give me some?
Girl: I can’t give you none
Boy: Oh sugar, Sweet sugar

Bonefish Biting
Bonefish biting’ no one to catch them
Every married man got his own bonefish
Throw out your line catch a bonefish
Throw out your line catch a bonefish

In “Sugar You Come,” the boy is interested in the girl’s “cake and sugar plum” and being the good girl she is, she refuses, “I can’t give you none,” but the boy still tries, “Oh sugar, sweet sugar.”

“Bonefish Biting” speaks about the fact that there are many single girls looking for a husband, “bonefish biting,” but there are not enough available single males around, “no one to catch them,” while all men in the settlement have wives, “every married man got his own bonefish,” any unmarried man could have his pick of the many available single girls, “throw out your line catch a bonefish.”

The structures of our folk songs are simple and usually last for one verse and are then repeated over and over. This works well during ring play games where each person in the circle gets a turn to dance and sing in the ring. However, to break up the monotony in a dance and party setting, several songs are woven together in a medley and can go on for hours, switching from song to song supported by hand clapping and a ripsaw rhythm section. The Providenciales branch of the Senior Citizens Club, organized by Mrs. Marion Williams, taught four tunes to me that can be woven together in such a medley, jumping from one topic to another without missing a beat.

Bow Wow Wow
Bow wow wow my dog gon’ bite you
Bow wow wow my dog gon’ bite you
Throw the water in the door
So the door can’t make no noise
Bow wow wow my dog gon’ bite you

Went Jamaica
Went Jamaica spend my holiday
Went Jamaica spend my holiday
They give me ripe banana
They give me green banana
They give me coconut water
Spend my holiday

Send Her Home
Big, big sambo gal
She can’t wash, she can’t cook
Send her home to her mama gal
The gal can’t wash and the gal can’t cook
Send her home to her mama

Salt rakers sang this last song as they transported sacks of salt to be loaded in the shiphold for export.

Back Down Toby
Back Down Toby
Back Down Toby
Topsi right behind
Two more trips to make the load
And you knock off half past nine

The folk song is an oral art, not a written one. When songs move through the Islands, some words and phrases are altered, changed, mispronounced or just forgotten, making it difficult to discover the origin and writer of the tune. During the mass exodus in the 1930s through the 1960s of Turks & Caicos Islanders to the Bahamas seeking employment and eventually settling there, many of our folk songs found their way to Inagua, Freeport and Nassau. Over the years, these folk songs have been integrated into the folk culture of that country and most Bahamians do not realize how much of an impact Turks Islanders made on the musical and cultural scene in the Bahamas. I will explore that issue more fully in my next article on “Ripsaw Music and our Musical Heritage.”

It is becoming increasingly rare these days to find the youth of the country learning and singing folk songs and playing ring games in school, at home or in leisure. Like most developing countries, the Turks & Caicos is fast losing its folk heritage due to the overwhelming dominance of foreign music, television and fashion trends. This situation is not unique to the Turks & Caicos, but is echoed throughout the Caribbean. While it is important for a developing nation to keep up with the rest of the world, its people and government must insure that the unique folk heritage is not lost in the process.

One of our local legends, Mr. Lovey Forbes and his son Correy, with their combined bands of The Lively Stones and The Rakooneers, have been instrumental in writing some of our newest folk songs. “The Old Conch” and “Green Corn Time” are just two of the songs finding their way into the folk culture of the Turks & Caicos Islands. Lovey wrote “The Old Conch” in 1981 and I was amazed to discover that most locals thought the song was around much earlier, perhaps during their grandparents’ day. The first verse and chorus (written below) are what most people know and sing, but there are altogether three verses in the original recording. This song appears in the primary school textbook, “Our Country, the Turks & Caicos Islands.” But in a perfect example of how the words of folk songs are changed or altered depending on who sings and plays them, the publishers printed this incorrect version. No one thought to contact Mr. Forbes.

The old conch is sweeter than the fresh conch
The old conch is sweeter than the fresh conch
Especially when you put it in peas and rice
I say the old conch will make it taste so nice

You soak-um, soak-um,
You wash-um, wash-um
You cook-um, cook-um, You eat-um, eat-um

“The Old Conch” is an infectious song and sure to be a folk classic. Should you ever visit Dora’s Restaurant on Leeward Highway in Providenciales, you can see the original lyrics written by Lovey displayed in a frame hanging on the wall.

As the Tourist Board’s Cultural Officer, besides researching, collecting and recording folk songs I have put together a number of cultural shows and productions with the Turks & Caicos Cultural Group and the TUCA Folklore Company, with the intention of exposing the school children and the general public to this rich part of our cultural heritage. I am also encouraging young musicians, songwriters and poets to not only learn and perform our local folk music, but also to write new songs about day-to-day life and record what is going on in their communities and the country in song and poems as a way to insure that the art of folk music and folk songs survives for future generations.

With our growing tourism industry, local folk and cultural groups will soon find themselves in demand to perform at resorts and hotels for guests looking for the unique aspects of our culture beyond the typical sun, sand and sea experience. I am sure our folk music, with its mixture of oral history, humor and tradition, will prove to be the perfect vehicle to achieve this.


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Apr 8, 2010 19:27

We need to have a national arts festival for the school children to learn and display and preserve the national songs, music, stories of the islands.


Apr 3, 2011 16:26

I would love to get information on how to obtain some of these materials and resource persons to teach the students of my class please.

Sep 12, 2012 10:50


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