I’ve been thinking lately about Harry Belafonte, who will turn 90 on March 1.
In many ways, particularly in this moment, Belafonte answers questions we seem to be confused about: what it means to be an American; where that identity comes from; how culture and politics and social justice connect.
Belafonte’s autobiography (written with Michael Shnayerson), “My Song” is a required read if you’re working on those questions.
The release of “When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte“ (Legacy Recordings) has sparked some good recent coverage. The album is an essential anthology of Belafonte’s biggest hits and timeless classics, including “Day-O” (from “Banana Boat”) and other hits from Belafonte’s 1956 breakout LP, “Calypso,” which became the first album ever, by any artist of any race or gender, to sell more than a million copies. The album also includes a new recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In The Sun),” performed by a children’s choir. The original recording of that song (co-written by Belafonte and Irving Burgie) served as the title music for the successful and at-the-time controversial 1957 film, “Island In The Sun,” which starred Belafonte, James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins and Dorothy Dandridge, and has since become an oft-covered standard.
In a nice piece in The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich aptly called Belafonte “one of America’s most vital and insurrectionary folk singers.”
In a lovely New York Times piece, John Leland profiles Belafonte today, on the cusp of 90, saying:
“When I took up with Martin, I really thought, two, at best three years, this should be over. Fifty years later, he’s dead and gone, and the Supreme Court just reversed the voting rights, and the police are shooting us down dead in the streets. And I look at this horizon of destruction, and I watch the black community by our state of being mute — we have no movement. I don’t know where to go to find the next Robeson. Maybe I don’t deserve a next one. Takes a lot of courage and a lot of power to step into the space and lead a holy war.”