The Toe Jam of the Lilliputians

Posted: August 2, 2015 in Uncategorized
Illustration from the 100 Heath & Co. edition of Gulliver's Travels into Several Remote Regions of the World

Illustration from the 1900 Heath & Co. edition of Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Regions of the World

In Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satirical novel, now known as Gulliver’s Travels[i], the minute people of the island nation of Lilliput not only make war on their neighbours but have barely survived several internecine struggles between the two major sects of their own religion. It seems that one sect decrees that a boiled egg should be cracked from the small end and the other believes that it should be cracked from the big end. The smallenders and bigenders argue their positions citing various traditions and historical incidents but all of it boils down to sectarian interpretations of the scriptural injunction to break an egg from the “convenient” end. Civil war has broken out over this issue, in which blood and treasure has been cast to the religio-political winds and even rulers have lost their crowns, and, on occasion, their very lives. Naturally the borders of little Lilliput and its people (small in so many ways) cannot contain such a monumental penchant for niggling pedantry and obtuse, trifling conflict. And so unsurprisingly, Lilliput declares war on their island neighbour, Blefuscu.

The fact that the officious Lilliputians would presume to tell each other (and others) how to do everything, down to how to crack an egg, and can disagree on these instructions to the extent that war becomes the decisive option demonstrates clearly that the Lilliputians cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees. They have a problem first with priorities, and last with conflict resolution. We gaze down on their tiny, fictitious island nation, somewhere in the Indian Ocean according to their author, and laugh at their silliness. A war over boiled eggs? Really?

If someone reminds us of the War of Jenkin’s Ear, which broke out little more than a decade after Swift released Gulliver’s thrilling travelogue, and which lasted almost another decade, we are quick to point out, “Well, you see, that war was about far more than just a Spaniard cutting off an Englishman’s ear.” Nobody in our modern civilizations fights in court, Parliament, Congress or on some local or foreign battlefield over things like where to put a hole, or which hole to put something in, or the color of clothes, or the color of skin, or what a word like “convenient” or “modest” or “righteous” or “liberation” means. We are not those obstreperous little Lilliputians. We have real issues. Issues upon which our very identities, cultures, societies, nations hinge! And, come to think of it, if people don’t break an egg correctly, well, then we are on a slippery slope indeed. Today breakfast, tomorrow, the virtue of our daughters!

Walkin’ in town

Meh good partner comin’ down,

“Why yuh getting so fat?”

“Why yuh eatin’ like dat?”

“Watch the size of your head, boy!”

“Yuh eatin’ too much bread.”

When people presume to tell us not only what to do, but what to eat, where to go, even how to walk and certainly how to talk, we have a lot of thinking to do and a lot of decisions to make. Whence comes their authority to give us advice or instructions? Are they bidding us to uphold tradition, act on conscience or abide by the law? If it is the law, is the law practical law, abstract law, provincial law or national law, natural law, divine law, cosmic law? Are these types of laws compatible? If or when they are not, what to do? We don’t want to confuse our authorities, so are church and state really separate, especially in a country where every creed/religion and race is supposed to find an equal place? But perhaps the most fundamental question we might have of any advisor or recommender is “why”? Why ought I accede to these laws, this advice or these instructions? Shouldn’t we understand these traditions we follow, these restrictions that bind us? Perhaps an even better question is “who”? Who is this giving me advice and instructions? Is it really advice, or just the proverbial vain “ole talk”?

Shadow’s 1980 hit “Toe Jam” is remarkable for many reasons, from its malodorous title to its almost too melodious music. The tune has one of Shadow’s patented sing-song melodies that reminds you of children’s game songs. There’s a distinct ‘tank-a-lank’ (or, in American, Nye-nye-nye-NEH-neh) attitude to what that saxophone is doing in particular. And the piano’s answer to the horns has a simple, deliberate attack like a schoolmarm leading the children in practicing the melody for the umpteenth time. One can imagine Melville and Frances Herskovits or Alan Lomax sitting there with their field notes and a microphone cocked at the uniformed children, ready to press Record, 

They tell me don’t walk with Jacob

Because Jacob does walk and shake up.

[Piano: ting-tong-ting-TONG

ting-tong-ting-TANG]

They tell me don’t talk to Bertram

Because de man foot stink with toe jam.

Maybe J.D. Elder is there explaining to the foreign anthropologists/ethnomusicologists what the children mean by these words and their sassy gestures and pantomimes as they imitate jiggling Jacob and putrid Bertram. Dancing all around the sweet melody a synthesizer seems to imitate the rude noises children make with their lips when they’re bored.

The music conspires with the lyrics to declare that all the social prescriptions and proscriptions recounted in the song are a kind of child’s play, a kind of game with real winners and losers, mind you, but trifling and ridiculous when seen from the outside, like a parliamentary referendum on how to get into a boiled egg.

Make no mistake, jiggling (or is it “jittery”?) Jacob is a Lilliputian egg and “Toe Jam” is a Gulliverian parable. It is from floating above and looking down on the shocking ridiculousness of our conventions and conflicts that Shadow has written many of his critical, satirical and absurdist masterpieces, from “Animal Kingdom” (1975) with a role reversal more than worthy of Jonathan Swift, to “Conscience” (1981) with its criminal longing for a liberated conscience, to the vicissitudes of “Money Funny” (2005), to his allegories “Cook, Curry and Crow” (1980), “Snakes” (1984) and “The Truth” (1985). And it is as the consummate outsider, a black-robed, black-hatted Gulliver that Shadow chose “Toe Jam” as the satirical title of this song.

Of all the words and lyrical turns of phrase throughout the composition, he chose not a title about people telling him “what to do” and how to do it; not “Don’t Walk with Jacob” as the first line of the chorus and perhaps an intuitively good title; not “the Knowledge I Want to Get” as a good rebuttal to all the bogus advice offered in the song, but rather “Toe Jam,” a silly word used by children to accuse a rival of having smelly feet.

The social arbitrators are reduced to knobby-kneed schoolyard bullies, inquisitors in khaki pants gathering their allies to chastise, persecute or denounce some unworthy constituent for his fetid socks. Shadow doesn’t bother to hide his contempt for these arbitrators of taste and propriety…because “son-of-a-bitch Winston” (which his own mother calls him, thereby insulting herself on the infamous 1974 track) is known for his trouble with dubious authority figures.

Authority is very much an issue in this song, like in so many by Shadow that question the credentials of various kinds of judges of beauty, intelligence, skill, and Calypso (and pan) itself. The last four lines of every stanza of “Toe Jam” begin with a propositional “If,” followed by some would-be proof of knowledge (and presumably wisdom) that his advisors might possess if they were worthy, but which Shadow then contests with a question of his own. Of his “fans” who try to tell him how to breathe, stand and emote as he sings, he says,

Sometimes offstage

My fans does get me in a rage,

Telling me how to sing,

How I must pose an’ thing,

How I must put meh mouth

To get meh sweet voice out.

 

If they really know

the way I should sing,

How come they don’t know

I could really sing?

In other words, if they’re so wise about every damned thing I do on stage, how come they don’t know that they are my fans precisely because I know what I’m doing? ‘If you like my singing and are here to hear it, how come you don’t recognize its expertise?’ This is perhaps a much bigger question, especially for Trinidadians who tend not to respect very highly the very arts that they claim to love (n.b. I do not include Tobagonians here because as supposedly less cosmopolitan, “small island” people, they seem to show a lot more appreciation for their own local talents, including Shadow, than do Trinis)…but maybe we’ll tackle this issue another day.

The ultimate rebuttal of authority in “Toe Jam” lies in Shadow’s unaddressed concern with “Mr. Death.” With all the abstruse advice on how to walk, talk, dress, eat, sing and whose company one should keep, Shadow finds himself starved for any response to the questions that really matter to him, the questions that dog him, in fact. What is Life? What is Death? What will become of me? How long do I have? How to deal with “the Aging System”? How to suffer sickness and decrepitude? How to escape Mr. Death?

Those big questions, the self-appointed and credentialed advisors alike have no answer for. They can tell you stop walking with flouncing Jacob or stink-foot Bertram. They can tell you what to wear when you go to that place they sent you. They can tell you the precise angle at which to to crack a boiled egg but they cannot answer the obvious questions staring us all in the face.

It’s almost as if all these little recommendations of theirs are for distracting us from the big questions…as if keeping us busy maintaining the illusion of propriety will cause us not to notice the yawning chasm between performing tradition and perceiving truth, affecting propriety and effecting peace, striking gestures and forging justice, getting justice and knowing unqualified love, cultivating habits and engendering happiness. If we are kept busy with Lilliputian concerns, we will never get around to interrogating life itself. If Lilliputian conventions can “keep this nigger boy running” (as characterised in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), he will never get a chance to apprehend himself, contemplate his state and overthrow his social captors.

But if “nigger boy” clings to the busywork that Lilliput H.Q. has prepared for him he will always have a lofty sense of propriety, even a proud (but fictive) sense of control. And out of these misdirected ‘senses’ and concerns we will berate his fellow Lilliputians for their respective levels of impropriety and lack of cultivation. He and his niggling fellow Lilliputians might even descend into a perpetual Night of the Long Knives (a.k.a. “Operation Hummingbird”), tit-for-tat, jook-fuh-jook, vainly attempting to achieve purity of practice, faith, nationality, race as they distill some ultimately unimportant part of themselves into a fine, colourless, synthetic substance.

The questions Shadow wants to tackle are light years away from the ones we are taught to ask then answer in the rote catechisms of “mad” society, “lunatic” politics and many of the myriad creeds of Trinidad & Tobago (with none of which Shadow claims affiliation). Shadow’s questions affect every human being on earth, but the Lilliputian concern of how to dress or speak differs from Bridgetown to Trenchtown, much less Detroit to Dakkar, especially if you’re a woman. The most perennial questions across Shadow’s lyric-writing career have regarded aging and death, inspiration and joy, ethics and fairness (including reward and retribution), and the beauty and mysterious origins of music itself.

How would keeping your mind on your elocution, your posture, your appearance or the company you appear with greatly advance the exploration or resolution of any of these concerns? How does Jacob’s jiggling obstruct our understanding of death or our inspiration for a new work of art or music? And it’s not just that Shadow is the mystic come down from LesCoteux to befuddle us with grand and esoteric questions that don’t change the price of tea in China. We plainly see that the Lilliputians have as few solutions for pollution and human trafficking as for Shadow’s pet concerns of poverty, sickness, old age and death. Where is the Lilliputian 10-year plan for addressing climate change? In a maritime environment full of steady wind, blazing sun and roiling oceanic currents, where is the Lilliputian green energy strategy? Wherever Lilliputians’ priorities are, they’re not with the major problems of the day.

So Shadow gets up on stage, poses how he likes, puts his mouth just how he damned well wants it, and with a sage verse, peppered with a few crazy syllables of shadolingo, breaks us out of our pedantic cage. Like birds we take flight and soar over Lilliput. And as we gain the altitude to see our fragile lifespans stretched out in front of, and behind, us we consider our accomplishments and errors, great loves and nemeses, injuries and exaltations with a kind of jovial equanimity.[ii] From these heights we can’t even smell the toe jam.

Endnotes

[i] The original title is Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships in the verbose title style of travelogue written in Swift’s day.

[ii] This ‘jovial equanimity’ is a trademark of Shadow, who can approach even the catastrophe of 1492 (“Columbus Lie,” 1989) or slavery (“The African,” 1974) with enough detachment as to achieve a certain level of humour, and from there point out the absurdities of, say, “discovering” America and Amerindians who had “discovered the lands before.” One might argue that slavery and the Conquest are no laughing matter but Shadow shows us that we might keep our sanity (and humanity) by maintaining this jovial equanimity in the midst of the fight: as we critique and contest chauvinism, cruelty and coercion. His work illustrates that in the realm of words and music, even kicksy irony and jokey satire is a tool of struggle. Perhaps we will expand on this later at Shadowlingo.

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