Beloved Jamaican cultural icon Louise Simone Bennett-Coverly, affectionately called ‘Miss Lou’, died Wednesday at the Scarborough Grace Hospital in Toronto, Canada at age 86, triggering a flood of tributes from the political and artistic communities, all of which recognised her pioneering role in promoting Jamaican folklore worldwide.
‘She believed passionately in her country and in her work as an artist,’ Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller said, adding that Miss Lou never failed to promote confidence in the extraordinary abilities, skills and talents of the Jamaican people.
Simpson Miller said Miss Lou was her role model and mentor, and described her as ‘A true example of the finest quality of Jamaican womanhood. a strong, courageous defender of the true Jamaican culture’.
Miss Lou, the prime minister said, was regarded as a part of the national landscape and a true representative of Jamaican hospitality, graciousness and charm.
Miss Lou, Jamaica’s premier folklorist, poet, entertainer and comedienne was born in Kingston on September 7, 1919. Famous for her radio shows, which included Laugh with Louise, Miss Lou’s Views and The Lou and Ranny Show, she was also celebrated for her television show Ring Ding, which was popular among Jamaican children all across the island in the 1970s.
The woman, who more than anyone else popularised the Jamaican good-bye wish ‘Walk good’, also performed leading humorous roles in several Jamaican pantomimes and travelled across the world lecturing and performing Jamaican folklore.
In August 2003, she was honoured by the government for her indelible contribution to Jamaica’s cultural history, at the Emancipation and Independence celebrations.
Former Prime Minister P J Patterson told the Observer that all Jamaica was extremely saddened by the news of the passing of the great cultural icon.
He said in due time Miss Lou became the first lady of Jamaican comedy as well as of national theatre.
‘Miss Lou was more than an innovator who gave status to the Jamaican language and who established a genre of poetry which reflected the indigenous genius of our people,’ Patterson said.
Miss Lou, Patterson added, in the generosity of her sharing and in her own deep love of people, particularly her fellow Jamaicans, became a symbol of national pride and national unity.
Another former prime minister, Edward Seaga, said Jamaica has lost one of its greatest icons, and one of the greatest brand names ranking with every other star, product or person.
He said that virtually single-handedly Miss Lou transformed folk culture from its remote existence to one which involved the entire nation in song and laughter.
‘In so doing, she uplifted the disdained Jamaica ‘patois’ from the backyard to the stage, at home and abroad,’ Seaga said in a statement.
Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, Opposition member of Parliament, said although Miss Lou had been living in Canada for over a decade, it seemed that she never left Jamaica.
‘When she visited us it was the same voice that over the decades captured the joy, sorrows and spontaneity of the Jamaican people through her poetry and comedy,’ Grange said.
The Jamaica Teachers’ Association also expressed regret at the passing of Miss Lou, whom the teacher’s union described as the ‘Jamaican icon who legitimised the vernacular as an acceptable artistic mode of expression’.
Said the JTA: ‘Her role in the development of the Jamaican pantomime, her numerous writings in all forms and her infectious personality always served to represent the most authentic part of Jamaicans.’
Sentiments were the same from people who worked with Miss Lou in the theatre.
Broadcaster and actress Fae Ellington said Miss Lou not only helped to define Jamaica’s identity but her own, making an indelible impression on her as a young actress.
Ellington said her earliest encounter with Miss Lou dated back to the 1970s when she performed alongside her in the pantomime Music Boy.
She said there was a premonition that something was awry when Miss Lou asked actress Leonie Forbes a few weeks ago to take a picture of her mother’s grave and take it back to Canada for her.
‘Those of us who are connected with our forebearers and ancestors we understand certain things, we recognised that something was amiss and I remember Leonie saying to me ‘I don’t like this’,’ Ellington told the Observer yesterday after the newspaper broke the news of Miss Lou’s death to her.
She said they went to the Catholic church in Gordon Town where Miss Lou’s mother was buried and took the pictures and sent them to her.
‘Leonie brought them back and that is the last and least I could have done for this wonderful lady,’ Ellington said.
Professor Rex Nettleford, meanwhile, said Miss Lou was a great loss and would be missed very much.
‘Miss Lou is arguably the only person who could enter a jam-pack stadium and get more applause than any public leader in Jamaica. she really grew into the heart of the people of Jamaica and deservedly so,’ Nettleford said.
He suggested that a section should be earmarked in the festival celebrations each year for poems in Jamaican talk, which would greatly represent Louise Bennett.
‘She is greatly respected in the academic circles both here and abroad so don’t worry, her work will live,’ added Nettleford.
Michael Nicholson, event specialist at the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission (JCDC), was taken aback when the Observer broke the news of Miss Lou’s death to him. ‘I am in a terrible state of shock,’ he said before regaining composure.
He said his desk was adorned with Miss Lou’s pictures as she was his mentor.
‘She was so bubbly, effervescent and just full of so much life and just so much knowledge,’ Nicholson said.
He said Miss Lou’s work will always live on as her work has continued to influence Jamaica’s theatre.
Each year, the JCDC celebrates Miss Lou Day on her birthday. ‘Now I know it will take on a greater significance as a result of her passing,’ Nicholson said.
Musician Marjorie Whylie, who also shared the stage with Miss Lou in the production Ring Ding, said she was in terrible shock at her passing.
She said Miss had done much to promote an understanding of the Jamaican identity.
‘I remember as a child that many people of the middle-class did not appreciate, did not quite understand what it was she was doing, but she was bringing a measure of respect to our culture and what we are enjoying today is as a result of her earlier effort,’ said Whylie.