Louise Bennett-Coverley

'Mother of Jamaican Culture'
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The Independent Online

Louise Simone Bennett, poet and folklorist: born Kingston, Jamaica 7 September 1919; MBE 1960; married 1954 Eric Coverley (died 2002; one son); died Scarborough, Ontario 26 July 2006.

For as long as I can remember, and long before that, no Jamaican occasion has been complete without its "Miss Lou" impersonation. That gave it the stamp of authority - and a good number of Jamaican ladies of a certain generation, physical stature and vocal accomplishment have established their own social standing on the basis of their rendition in appropriate accent and dialect of "Miss Lou" stories, comedy and poems.

Louise Bennett-Coverley has been described as the "Mother of Jamaican Culture" and "Jamaica's First Lady of Comedy". The Jamaican Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, says that she was

hailed by generations of Jamaicans as the very essence of our Jamaican-ness - larger than life, earthy, humorous, warm, good-natured, highly creative and full of wisdom.

Ironically for such a national icon Bennett-Coverley died in Canada, where she and her husband, the actor and impresario Eric ("Chalk Talk") Coverley, whom she married in 1954 and who died in 2002, had moved just over a decade ago. Answering criticism that she had left her native land, Bennett-Coverley replied characteristically that Jamaica was wherever she was - and almost to a person her compatriots agreed.

Louise Simone Bennett was born in 1919 in Kingston, and educated at the Ebenezer and Calabar elementary schools, St Simon's College, Excelsior College and Friends College (Highgate). She wrote her first poem in Jamaican patois when she was just 14 years old and in 1942 a first collection, Jamaica Dialect Verses, was published in Kingston. Her best-known volumes are Jamaica Labrish (1966) and Anancy and Miss Lou (1979), with her Selected Poems published in 1982.

In the late 1940s, she studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a British Council Scholarship and after graduating Bennett toured the UK in repertory. Returning to Jamaica, she worked with the University of the West Indies (Extra Mural Department) and taught drama to youth and adult groups. She made extensive recordings, including Jamaican Folk Songs (1954) and Children's Jamaican Songs and Games (1957) for the Folkways label. She lectured on Jamaican folklore throughout North America and the UK.

Academic and civic honours were heaped on her - she was appointed to the Order of Jamaica in 1974 and to the Jamaican Order of Merit in 2001. Nevertheless Jamaicans who heard and enjoyed her performances were less concerned about her "status" in the literary way of things than that she spoke to them in a tongue which they understood and, in so doing, made Jamaican patois, with all its different influences, into an acceptable language in which to express thoughts, poetry, social observations and comedy.

Bennett-Coverley is remembered fondly from the early days of television in Jamaica for Ring Ding in children's entertainment and for Auntie Roachy, Laugh with Louise and Miss Lou's Views in radio comedy. The many Jamaicans who came to the UK in the late 1950s and early 1960s look back with affection on her live and radio comedy partnership with Ranny Williams (The Lou and Ranny Show) as being their abiding memory of "home".

Clayton Goodwin