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.”
In 2001, Belafonte released “The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music,” a lovingly assembled collection of recordings I can’t imagine living without.
Back then, here’s the interview piece I did for RhythmMusic, a magazine I once edited:
Belafonte’s Long Road
By Larry Blumenfeld
If Harry Belafonte looked tired, it wasn’t just his 74 years showing through. It was the long flight back from South Africa, where he’d traveled as part of a UNICEF team working to combat HIV in children. His voice, that famously coarse whisper, quickly grew animated as he spoke of the imminent release of The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, a project he’d dreamed up nearly a half-century ago. We’d last seen each other in Havana, at a performance by pianist Chucho Valdes.
HARRY BELAFONTE: If you have a sense, for instance, that in Cuba there are elements in place that give a vitality to the cultural expression that you see missing here, and you examine or begin to look at what is really different beyond the politics, it is the fact that Cubans have such a respect for their history and where they came from and who they are. They yield nothing to anyone who even begins to suggest that their culture or their history is inferior in any way.
Part of my whole struggle is how, when I was born, I was called “colored,” and not too long after that I was called “Negro,” and not too long after that I became “Black,” and most recently I’m called “African-American.” Each time I have come closer, and what’s true is the fact that I have been spending three-quarters of this century just in search of identity.
What I found that Cuban culture did under the present regime was that it said, “If you do nothing else, you will learn your history, look deep into your slave past, look over the line that’s traced by the blood that flows in your veins, and by who you are.”
LARRY BLUMENFELD: Was the process of assembling this boxed set your way of instilling that sense?
BELAFONTE: When I call myself an American, I say it, and it “rolls trippingly off the tongue,” but in that one second or that fraction of a second, I think, “What are you really?” Now, Jamaicans haven’t got that problem. Cubans don’t have that problem, the Brazilians don’t — because they may not have settled the score entirely, but they’ve settled the question with their slave existence, their slave past. We stood there in the belly of the beast, and the beast still does not acknowledge us as a whole people. They still killed off affirmative action; they’re still trying to relegate us to some secondary position; they’re still shooting us down, 41 bullets, in Harlem, or whatever.
I feel a new bravado. I wake up every morning with something to do because the injustice, fear, isn’t gone. That’s not my exclusive motivation, but it certainly is central to where I make a commitment in what I do.
BLUMENFELD: Forty or fifty years ago, were you thinking along those same lines?
BELAFONTE: Yeah. I was thinking along the same lines, but I thought then the opportunity was greater than it turned out to be.
If you have a popular platform and you are able to reach a constituency that will at least listen, how you deliver something makes a difference. If you can get them to sing your song, you know, then they’ll want to know who you are, right?
Well, okay, that means “Day-O,” — and, in a simplistic way that popular cultures could teach, it was just a ditty. But now, that was a work song that came from the people who struggled in a place on a banana plantation, a song my heard my folks singin’, people in poverty. But there’s more to the “Day-O” than that. It’s all in there. Now, can you take it to the next place?
As Paul Robeson told me, ‘The purpose of art is not just to show life as it is but to show life as it should be, could be.”
BLUMENFELD: You tapped some wonderful voices for these recordings — Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Joe Williams, Gloria Lynne. Did you ever consider asking Robeson to participate?
BELAFONTE: Well… yes, and ultimately no… that would have been like asking god to lunch.