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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Shirt Them-A-Tear Up, Trousers Are Gone

The Israelites was the first reggae song I can recall hearing. It came out the same year as the Beatles’ White Album. All sorts of things used to come out of the radio back then. Wonderful things. Odd things. Music got to be big business later on, so the whole process got roped and branded and leveled out quite a bit.

Desmond Dekker and Leslie Kong wrote The Israelites, and there’s Desmond singing it in the video.  Desmond’s clothes have obviously been placed in  his wardrobe by his enemies. Leslie Kong sounds like a pretty tough name for a guy, but he’s been dead since I was in eighth grade, so I guess he wasn’t built for the long haul. Anyway, it’s a marvelous piece of backwards backbeat.

It was the Jamaican version of Louie Louie, in that no one could agree on what the hell the lyrics were. Here’s as good a guess as any:

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
so that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir,
So that every mouth can be fed.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

My wife and my kids, they are packed up and leave me.
Darling, she said, I was yours to be seen.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Shirt them a-tear up, trousers are gone.
I don’t want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

After a storm there must be a calm.
They catch me in the farm. You sound the alarm.
Poor me, the Israelite. Aah.

Poor me, the Israelite.
I wonder who I’m working for.
Poor me, Israelite,
I look a-down and out, sir.

I remember how profoundly exotic that song sounded coming out of the radio the first time I heard it. It was backwards and sideways and their accents didn’t register as any I’d heard. It was a message from outer space, only warmer.

10 Responses

  1. G Bob!

    Oh, yes, that's five years earlier, easy, and I do remember it now that you mentioned it. I don't remember it being touted as a reggae song back then, but all the elements are there, aren't they? I sorta remember it being lumped in with things like the Banana Boat Song — Caribbean, no fixed address.

  2. Just looked up Millie Small. Her style is actually called "blue beat," considered a direct precursor of reggae…

    The record sold a staggering 6 million copies, which put Island records on the map. So I guess we can blame her for Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

  3. Blue beat is to reggae as rhythm & blues is to rock. Musicologists believe it results from R & B transmitted via New Orleans radio stations interacting with ganja and bent crookward due to the coriolis effect causing the accent on the wrong beat.

  4. Wow. First time I heard that was sometime in the early early '90s – it was on a compilation of early protean Reggae. For a while I put it on every mixed tape I made (remember those? Make 'em, dupe 'em & hand them out to your friends). I wasn't much of a fan of full-blown '70s Reggae – too much hippie tinge for me – but I liked what I had heard of the early precursor music to Reggae.

    The studio version of that tune just killed me. Somehow it sounded sinuously modern and old as the Israelites at the same time. I couldn't believe that a)I had never heard it before and b)no one else I knew had either (but then not a Reggae crowd). So I proselytized for awhile.

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