Louise Simone Bennett-Coverley, OM, OJ, MBE, or Miss Lou, was a Jamaican folklorist, writer, and educator. She also served as Jamaica’s Cultural Ambassador.
Born September 7, 1919, in Kingston, Louise went to Ebenezer and Calabar Primary Schools, St. Simon’s College, Excelsior High School and Friends College. In the 1940s she went to England and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts on a British Council Scholarship.
She first appeared in a pantomime in 1943/44 “Soliday and the Wicked Bird” in the chorus role – Big Sambo Gal. As the decade came to a close, joined by Ranny Williams, she grew to become a vital part of the process to ‘Jamaicanize’ the Pantomime. She drew upon her wealth of knowledge of folk songs and tales and wrote “Anancy & Pandora” in 1949. Actually one of her most lasting undertakings was the song “Evening Time” – a song from the 1949/50 Pantomime “Bluebeard and Brer Anancy” has become a Jamaican classic. She co-wrote “Queenie’s Daughter” which turned out to be very popular, it was revived twice.
Her relationship on stage as part of the duo Miss Lou and Mass Ran (Ranny Williams) became legendary. She performed in 25 pantomimes from 1943 to 1975. Her last appearance in a pantomime was in1975/76 production of “The Witch”. Members of the LTM Pantomime Company were honored to have her in the audience when “Miss Annie”, a remake of “The Witch” was performed in Toronto Canada, in 2003.
Her immense folk knowledge led to the publishing of several collections of poems, short stories, and songs and was recognized by the University of the West Indies with an Honorary D.Litt in 1983. She was also awarded the Institute of Jamaica’s Musgrave Gold Medal (1979). In 1974, she was awarded the Order of Jamaica. In 2001, Miss Lou was awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit for her invaluable and distinguished contributions to the development of the Arts and Culture.
She wrote her poems in the language of the people known as Jamaican Patois or Creole and helped to put this language on the map and to have it recognized as a language (“nation language”) in its own right, thus influencing many other poets.
Some of her most memorable recordings include her 1954 rendition of the Jamaican traditional song “Day Dah Light”, which was recorded by Harry Belafonte as “Day O”, also known as the “Banana Boat Song”, in 1955 on a Tony Scott arrangement with additional lyrics. Belafonte based his version on Bennett’s recording. His version became very famous and commercially successful. It was one of the 1950s’ biggest hit records and achieved gold status (sales of over 500,000 records).
Among Bennett’s other recordings are Jamaica Singing Games, Jamaican Folk Songs, Children’s Jamaican Songs and Games, Miss Lou’s Views, Listen to Louise, Carifesta Ring Ding, The Honorable Miss Lou, Miss Lou Live-London, Yes M’ Dear, and Long Time Gal
She was a primary supporter for the use of the Jamaican language (patois) and lectured and performed in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada. She was honored with the institution of the Louise Bennett Exchange Fellowship for post-graduate research in Jamaican/West Indian folk language culture at UWI and University of Toronto. Miss Lou has authored several books of poetry and short stories including Jamaica Labrish, Anancy and Miss Lou, and Aunty Roachy Seh.
Miss Lou died on July 26, 2006, in Toronto. In honor of her achievements, Harbourfront Centre, a non-profit cultural organization in Toronto, Canada, named a venue after her as Miss Lou’s Room.
By Karl A. Haughton