Linton Kwesi Johnson was already a well known poet before he started putting out reggae records in the late 1970s. It’s hard to fathom the concept of a “famous” poet in contemporary times – when most people think poetry they think back to a bunch of old dead guys (and a few girls) they read in school, or the frustrations of trying to fit your thoughts into iambic pentameter, or trying to think of a word that rhymes with orange. But it’s natural that a poet could be drawn to writing song lyrics, and perhaps even more so in reggae, a music of protest and one not necessarily constrained to strict structures.
I’m not sure how these two 12″ singles, “Sonny’s Lettah” (1979) and “Di Black Pretty Booshwah” (1980) ended up at my local used record store, Vortex. Lots of classic rock in my neighborhood, based on their stock, and also a healthy amount of jazz and blues. Reggae? Not so much. But there they were, along with a few interesting UK items (to appear in future blogs…), so somebody had some interesting taste back in the day.
The thick paper outer sleeve of “Sonny’s Lettah” is in the form of a letter from a son to his mother to tell her that his brother is dead, beat to death by a random police squad. And, to make things even worse, he himself was being charged with the murder. It’s written in a phonetic version of the Jamaican Patois, and those are also the words of the title track. The second song on the A side is a dub version called “Iron Bar Dub” that has a pretty trippy mix, one with a few stops and starts, almost parts to a play. The B side is given over to a sort of ska-reggae instrumental called “Tek Chance.” It has a few dub flourishes to it, but it’s seems like just a straight forward music track. A dub version of that called “Funny Dub” closes out the side.
“Di Black Pretty Booshwah” follows a similar construction as the earlier 12″, with a fairly standard reggae track followed by a dub version on side A, while the first song on side B is a ska-flavored instrumented that too is followed by a dub version. Decent stuff, particularly the dub versions, which take some very strong liberties with the originals.
Like so much dub, I find myself thinking, “yeah, I like this,” but that there really aren’t any standout tracks or anything particularly memorable at all – it’s just good, enjoyable music. I’ll definitely add Johnson to my rather small list of “trusted” reggae and dub artists – I’d like to check out a few of his full-length albums, particularly the LKJ In Dub series.