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Sweet and Dandy

by Frederick ‘Toots’ Hibbert

Transcribed and notes by Peter L Patrick

 

This classic tune, recorded with The Maytals in 1969 and available in countless reggae anthologies, is a small masterpiece of Jamaican – or indeed any popular – songwriting. It’s one of my favorite songs, and was played at my own wedding. With great economy, precision and affectionate humor, Toots portrays a couple on the verge of their wedding ceremony, having last-minute nerves and being both soothed and urged on by their older relatives, while the guests wait to celebrate. The language is vernacular, poetic, evocative and immediate; the music is both edgy (especially the introductory guitar riff) and upbeat, falling in a long melodic curve through each scene-setting verse, and then rising with equal length and good humor through the chorus to the concluding image of the happy couple dancing. Some notes on the language follow, below.

 

 

Eh-eh!1 Ettie inna room a2 cry

Mama seh she mus' wipe 'er h'eye3

Papa seh she no fi foolish4 like

She neva been to school at all

 

          It is no wonder

          Is a perfect ponder5

          While they were dancin' in dat ballroom las' night

 

Eh-eh! Johnson inna room a fret

Uncle seh 'im mus'  wuol' up 'im head6

Auntie seh ‘e no fi foolish like

Is not time for his weddin' day7

 

          It is no wonder

          Is a perfect ponder

          While they were dancin' in dat ballroom las' night

 

One poun’ ten for de weddin' cake8

Twenty bokkle of cola wine9

All di people-dem dress up inna white10

Fi go h'eat off Johnson weddin' cake11

 

          It is no wonder

          Is a perfect ponder

          While they were dancin' in dat ballroom las' night

 

....But they were sweet an' dandy, sweet an' dandy,

          sweet an' dandy, sweet an' dandy

They were sweet an' dan-deh…    sweet an' dan-deh....

 

Notes and Comments:

1.     Eh-eh! is an exclamation which Fred Cassidy in Jamaica Talk, calls an “expression of surprise, but without concern.” Cassidy believes it has African origins, and this seems quite likely as it is part of an elaborate system of paralinguistic forms (i.e., fixed sounds which are not quite words but have conventional uses and meanings) that Jamaicans use to express emotion, moral positioning and evaluation in everyday interaction. Other elements of this system, such as kiss-teeth, have been shown to occur across the African Diaspora and to be expressed in a range of African languages (see my article on kiss-teeth).

2.     A cry and a fret: the ‘a’ here expresses continuous or progressive meaning: it is happeninng at the moment of speaking.

3.     H is often dropped in Jamaican where standard English expects or writes it, and also inserted at the beginning of syllables where it is not expected – sometimes for emphasis. Below, the word hold is pronounced as wuol when it is stressed (before an ‘o’).

4.     No fi foolish – ‘ought not to be foolish’. Fi is another small sound with large moral force in Jamaican, a modal verb meaning ‘should’ or ‘ought’. The negative ‘no’ here occurs before verbs, as is typical of Jamaican and many Creole languages. In the time and place of this wedding (the couple and family may well be rural), having ‘been to school’ is a source of pride, and proper social behavior is expected – the opposite, being ‘ignorant’, is equally a source of shame and associated with low-status, country folk.

5.     Perfect ponder – I’ve never heard this anywhere else, but think it means “really something remarkable to think about”!

6.     In the original song, the Uncle’s words are sung in an exaggeratedly low pitch, with a gruff masculine voice quality, as befits the sentiment. The falsetto harmony throughout the song not only reminds one of this music’s roots in African American a cappella vocal harmony groups (esp. doo-wop), but also voices the female voices and advice. Johnson is represented by his Uncle and Auntie – the system of kinship and parenting in traditional Jamaica often involves people other than a child’s parent(s) accepting the (lifelong) burden and responsibility of caring for a child.

7.     Traditionally in the Jamaican countryside, marriage might occur late, after many years of living together, or ‘talking’, and raising children – in the middle of life, when money could finally be set aside for this ceremony which symbolizes a settled partnership, and the community celebration could be afforded in proper style.

8.     Jamaica of course was still on the sterling system when this song was written or set, and £1. 10s. was a great deal of money for a cake! I remember those wedding cakes from childhood: the heavy white icing and the decorative little silver-colored hard-sugar pellets, about the size of BBs and as hard on your teeth…

9.     Bokkle shows the Jamaican pronunciation of ‘t’ sounds, typically realized as ‘k’ before an ‘L’. If I’m right about cola wine, it isn’t wine but a soft drink, like the fizzy orange ‘cola champagne’ children used to love – though harder liquors might well play a part in a wedding party…

10.            All di people-dem: This –dem is the Jamaican creole way of marking plural number on nouns, where Standard English requires an –s. However, while the latter is required wherever nouns are plural, in Jamaican marking plural is optional, and occurs more often for people than for things (an ‘animacy constraint’, as linguists call it, which it shares with other Caribbean and West African Creoles and other languages). Notice that the preposition inna here is quite clearly not in + a, as it might have seemed in the earlier verses – it is just the basic preposition for ‘in(side)’. Jamaican also does not require an indefinite article ‘a’ before every indefinite noun, but has a different system for showing the definite or specific nature of nouns from English grammar.

11.            Here fi has no moral force – it’s not immoral to fail to eat one’s piece of cake (though few would refuse it)! – but simply corresponds to the English infinitive marker to, as in ‘to (eat)’. The go does not imply mean movement, but is a ‘serial verb’ which indicates the future, or not-yet-accomplished, nature of people’s intention to get their share of the cake. There is no possessive –s marker on Johnson – the position of the words makes it clear enough whose cake it is.

 

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Last updated on 03 June 2004