By David Werther.
Harry Belafonte with Michael Shnayerson, Harry Belafonte: My Song (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 469 pp.
Harry Belafonte, Sing Your Song, The Music (Sony Music, 2011)
Book and music reviews by David Werther.
The November 23, 1962 issue of Time Magazine featured an article on folksingers. Joan Baez graced the cover. The article referenced the first artist to ever sell a million copies of an album, Harry Belafonte, as “Belaphony.” That the source of the snipe is not noted says more than a little about the critic’s integrity. That said, there is a grain of truth in the charge.
Belafonte came to singing by way of acting, and, at the end of his career, he judged himself to be a pretty good actor on the grounds that for years he managed to convince audiences that he was a singer. He began working in the theatre as a stagehand at The American Negro Theatre. The shy man he worked with behind the scenes, Sidney Poitier, would become his first real friend.
Belafonte’s formal schooling as an actor came by way of the G.I. Bill. A ninth-grade dropout, who once demanded that a librarian check the card catalog for works by “Ibid,” he argued successfully for admittance into the New School for Social Research. His classmates there included Bernie Schwartz (Tony Curtis) and Marlon Brando.
After New School theatre performances Belafonte began stopping by The Royal Roost, a jazz club where, for fifty cents, he could listen to Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Ella Fitzgerald. When asked about his work, Belafonte invited Young et al. to see him in a production of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. In this particular production, he played the role of Troubadour, a newly conceived part that required him to sing some Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie: “I never would have had the nerve to present myself onstage as a singer. But as the Troubadour, I was an actor, singing in character. That made all the difference to me.” (p. 73)
While Belafonte saw himself as an actor singing, the jazz musicians heard a singer acting. They arranged for him to have a gig singing at The Royal Roost. When Belafonte came on stage for his debut, he imagined that his sole accompanist would be Lester Young’s pianist, Al Haig. He was stunned when bassist Tommy Porter and percussionist Max Roach took the stage, and then utterly floored when Charlie Parker came on with his saxophone.
"'I couldn’t believe it. Four of the world’s greatest jazz musicians had just volunteered to be the backup band for a twenty-one-year-old singer that no one had ever heard of, making his debut in a nightclub intermission.' (p. 80) Belafonte’s star rose quickly, and for the rest of his life he would be “paying it forward,” using his fame to introduce audiences to great, but unknown or under appreciated talents like Miriam Makeba."
“My Angel (Malakia),” one of the selections on Sing Your Song: The Music, features Miriam Makeba. Sung in Swahili, the song tells the story of an impoverished man who cannot marry the woman he loves. As a whole, the cuts on Sing Your Song are wide-ranging. Calypso music on the CD includes “Cocoanut Woman,” “Island in the Sun,” “Matilda,” “Jamaica Farewell,” and, of course, “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” The latter two songs appeared on Belafonte’s 1956 album, Calypso, the first album ever to sell a million copies. Ironically, the incredibly popular “Day-O” was almost an afterthought, a song added to fill out the Calypso collection. On a superficial level the song is about workers looking forward to the end of their shift. On a deeper level, it is about anyone laboring in darkness, and longing for liberation, symbolized by daybreak.
Two of the selections on Sing Your Song serve as foils. In the prison song “Sylvie,” a desperate, enfeebled man cries out for a drink. In contrast, the exuberant slave song “Jump Down, Spin Around” reveals an indomitable side of humanity.
In keeping with the upbeat “Jump Down” there is a good deal of humor in Sing Your Song, not least the Belafonte-Odetta duet, “A Hole in the Bucket.” “Cocoanut Woman,” “Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” and “Mama Look a Boo Boo” are lighthearted fun. In “Mama Look a Boo Boo” Mama’s children complain that the man of the house cannot be their father because “he is so ugly so,” while the father wonders about the paternity of the children, given their bad behavior.
A startling juxtaposition, the sacred-sounding, “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)” follows “Mama Look a Boo Boo.” The father in “Ribbons” overhears his daughter praying at bedtime for scarlet ribbons and goes out to buy some, only to find all the shops closed. In the morning he looks in on his daughter to find “scarlet ribbons in gay profusion on her bed.” Of this song Belafonte comments: "A lot of the songs that I sang were really directed at my children; perhaps the most significant is “Scarlett Ribbons.” And I used this song to wend my way into the hearts and minds of the American people, hoping that it would show another side of who I was." (Liner Notes, Sing Your Song)
Sing Your Song is a many-sided collection and if the critic who cried “phony” in the November 1962 issue of Time magazine is still around, he or she may still be calling into question Belafonte’s authenticity. At times, Belafonte did so himself, yet he came to see that his authenticity lay in the breadth of his material: “Different voices, but a shared humanity; this was my platform, my authenticity, my politics. My song.” (p. 99)
Harry Belafonte: My Song, A Memoir emphasizes Belafonte’s political activism by beginning in media res. Freedom riders had been murdered in Mississippi and SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) was worried that if it pulled out then, the Ku Klux Klan would claim victory. But SNCC needed funding to stay in the south and called on Belafonte to raise the cash. Not only did he do so in quick order, but he and his friend, Sidney Poitier, delivered it. A handoff was necessary, as wiring tens of thousands of dollars to despised SNCC activists in Mississippi was out of the question.
Three key people helped shape Belafonte’s brand of activism. The words of his impoverished mother became his “Rosebud”: “When you grow up, son, never ever go to bed at night knowing that there was something you could have done during the day to strike a blow against injustice and you didn’t do it.” (p. 25) Paul Robeson gave him his backbone. The Phi Beta Kappa, valedictorian from Rutgers University — at a time when he was the sole black student on campus — who used his subsequent fame as an actor to speak out against injustice, served as a role model and inspiration. Martin Luther King Jr. gave him his heart. Growing up black in Harlem, Harry Belafonte had to be won over to the tenets of nonviolence. Initially, King reached out to Belafonte, hoping to enlist the famous entertainer as a supporter. Over time, their friendship blossomed and King became a frequent visitor in the Belafonte home, and Belafonte served as a mediator between King and attorney general, Bobby Kennedy.
Belafonte describes the harmonies of his life, relationships with King, Robeson and many others in My Song. In entitling the companion CD Sing Your Song Belafonte underscores his intention for his readers of My Song to “take a look at your song. Is it really the melody you think it is? Or are there so many harmonic parts that you never took the time to understand the full value of your moment?”