Music History #25: "Calypso"
Written by John Denver (1975)
Performed by John Denver
In 1974, John Denver was invited to sail with Jacques Cousteau aboard the famed oceanographer's boat Calypso. Denver said, “The first few moments I had on my own, I was walking around the deck of the ship and in the time it takes to sing it—Aye, Calypso, the places you've been to, the things that you've shown us, the stories you tell—I had the chorus of the song.”
While the chorus came easily, Denver struggled for months to find the verses for the song. One day, in frustration, he gave up and went skiing. After three runs down the mountain, he felt a creative tension building and raced home. In another burst of creativity, the verses poured out in a flood.
Recorded with a full orchestra, “Calypso” is a rousing sea shanty-style ballad with splashes of yodeling and cinematic flourishes. Originally released as a B-side to Denver's single “I'm Sorry,” it soon gained its own momentum on radio and ended up as a #2 hit.
Here's Denver talking about the song, along with a video that incorporates undersea footage from Cousteau:
Built in 1941, the vessel that became Calypso was originally called BYMS-26, a wooden-hulled minesweeper for the British Royal Navy. Launched in 1942, she saw active duty in the Mediterranean Sea through World War II, before being struck from the Naval Register in 1947.
After the war, she was renamed Calypso, for a sea nymph from Homer's Odyssey. For the next three years, she ferried tourists and locals between Malta and the island of Gozo. In 1950, Calypso was purchased by an Irish millionaire named Thomas Guinness, who in turn leased it to Jacques Cousteau for the symbolic fee of one franc a year. Guinness wanted to see the boat used for oceanographic research and conservation. And as a condition of the deal, he asked that Cousteau never reveal his identity. It wasn't until after Cousteau's death in 1997 that Guinness's name came out.
While the boat that became Calypso had been sweeping for mines during the war, lifelong ocean lover and former French navy man Jacques-Yves Cousteau was forging his career as the century's most renowned mariner. In 1943, he won the Congress of Documentary Film top prize for the first French underwater film,18 Meters Deep. The same year, he shot another movie, Shipwrecks, in which he helped design and test the first Aqua-Lung, the prototype of the SCUBA tank (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) that became the standard for all deep sea divers. Cousteau also went on to develop such innovations as the underwater scooter, the diving saucer, and “Conshelf,” an underwater research base. For the duration of WWII, he worked with the French Navy both as an undercover agent assembling commando missions against the Axis forces and helping to rescue sunken vessels.
The Undersea World
In 1950, after leasing the Calypso from Guinness, Cousteau refitted the boat as a mobile laboratory and it became the home for his deep sea adventures over the next thirty years.
While he captured the imagination of millions with his books, short films, an Academy award-winning documentary and a classic TV series (which aired from 1966 to 1976), Cousteau's achievements ran even deeper. He played a big part in stopping the dumping of radioactive waste in the ocean, helped refine ideas about porpoises and their echolocation sonar abilities, and was one of the first to explore the waters of Antarctica. But his most lasting contribution was to reveal the splendor of the undersea world with a wide-eyed wonder, while raising awareness of ocean ecology and conservation. Long before it was a fashionable cause, Cousteau was enlightening us about the interconnectivity of species and environmental issues.
In 1996, Calypso was accidentally rammed by a barge and sunk in the port of Singapore. The boat was raised and towed to Marseille, France. After Cousteau's death in 1997, there were years of legal battles over the boat's ownership between his family and members of the Guinness family.
Finally, in 2010, a new Calypso was relaunched by the Cousteau Society as a touring educational exhibition.
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