Surprising Origin Of Old Time Island Music

Tribune Features Writer


THE LEGEND of Sammie Swain folk opera may not be popularly known, but its music has passed through generations and become entrenched in Bahamian tradition.

Songs that were written specifically for the first staging of Sammie Swain in the late 1960’s have become embedded in Bahamian tradition.

It is common place to hear songs such as “When The Road Seems Rough” or “I Bid You Goodnight” sung at Bahamian wakes, funeral and other events. However, very few know the origin of these songs; that they are connected to a 40 year-old play, which has not been staged in the Bahamas in over two decades.

It is the hope of musical director Adrian Archer that when the curtain is pulled back on Sammie Swain during the Shakespeare in Paradise Festival, people will see the significant impact the play has had on Bahamian culture.

Sammie Swain was written by the late E Clement Bethel and tells the story of a disabled man who seeks the love of a village beauty. Some of the music for Sammie Swain was taken from Clement Bethel’s dissertation for his doctoral degree.

“It is a compilation of his music strung together into this play which was researched by Etienne Dupuch. So all of the pieces that people will hear are based upon Clement Bethel’s work, for the exception of one or two pieces, which were later added by Cleophas Adderly. These are old time island songs. They are wake songs that you would normally hear during 50’s and 60’s years ago,” Mr Archer told In Ya Ear.

Mr Archer’s role in Sammie Swain has changed this time, as he no longer plays one of the village men. He is the production’s musical director. Mr Archer said Clement Bethel was one of his musical mentors and he is honored to bring his memory and skills to the restaging of one of the most extensive musical plays in Bahamian history.

He said Clement Bethel’s construction of the music years ago has made his job in teaching the cast members the harmonies, tones and beats easy.

“Lots of the music in Sammie Swain is music that they have to memorise without having the scripts in the front of them. Luckily enough Clement Bethel was smart about how he constructed the music so that it is very singable music. You can have really complicated music that singers would need a score to read. With the music in this play even the simplest of singers can hear tone, remember it or harmonise. He was very smart in that he did not complicate his construction of the music. I do not know if this was his intention or whether he thought 30 years after his death it would be staged or that the music would be as easy to sing as it is appearing to be,” he said.

The orchestration of music includes the piano, a flute and drums.

“In addition to Sammie Swain who is the lead character of the play, the singers lead the story because the story is about a village and the way people live in the village. For example they tell the story of the importance of a mail boat coming to a village, the importance of a wake in the village, the importance of a celebration in the village and so there are really no lead roles per se other than Sammie Swain. The rest of the villagers are as important to the story. But the main roles are the people,” he said.

Mr Archer believes Sammie Swain’s revival will also help inspire others to keep the music of the play alive.

“I am not surprised that some of the music still lives on because the music is typical Bahamian music that has gone down through generations. I am not surprised that the music is familiar. I am surprised that people do not know the full scale of the work of Sammie Swain and certainly that is not their fault because the play has not been staged in 30 years. When people come to the play they will recognise certain songs and they will say ‘I never knew it came from Sammie Swain’, which is exactly the point we want to make. We want people to remember the Legend of Sammie Swain and remember the music,” he said.


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