All I knew was that I wanted Belafonte to keep singing, wanted the record to play again and again.
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How young was I when I first heard Harry Belafonte sing? Well, there’s a good chance I was still in the womb, his career having taken off and his records gone gold the year before my birth.
But my first memory was of a man singing words I couldn’t hope to understand. All I knew was that I wanted him to keep singing, wanted the record to play again and again. That record was Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean and it was produced in 1957, the year of my birth. I think even a toddler can tell when a singer believes in their song, or believes in something, has some reason to sing, whatever they happen to be singing about.
Harry Belafonte’s life was filled with reasons to sing. For the 66 years on earth we shared, he made it one long reason. Because he was dedicated to his art but no less dedicated to advocacy and action — a voice for peace, justice, racial and gender equality, diversity — all the good things.
Belafonte’s death last week at the age of 96 brought to a close an extraordinary life, a remarkable career as both artist and activist. How many who stood shoulder to shoulder with (and bankrolled and advised) Martin Luther King Jr. were still on the scene to call out the depravity of President Donald Trump? How many played a leading role in the March on Washington in 1963 and then 54 years later (as honorary co-chair) in the Women’s March on Washington in 2017?
The intervening decades saw Belafonte take stand after stand against war, imperialism, apartheid, and the excesses of capitalism, and for the dispossessed and denigrated — all while continuing to sing, act, produce, and give philanthropically. He was not afraid of controversy and rarely backed down, daring to take on the George W. Bush administration at the height of its Patriot Act-enhanced powers.
For all this I am enduringly grateful, as an American and resident of planet Earth, all the more so because Belafonte kept fighting to the end without the gratification of seeing much, if not most, of what he fought for come to pass.
But closest to my heart are the songs. By the time I was five and the words began making some sense, I had heard him at Carnegie Hall. And I had visited the Caribbean — first Caneel Bay, a resort in the US Virgin Islands, then other islands — where most of the songs I knew had their roots. My parents were not wealthy but they both worked demanding jobs, so always set aside enough to afford annual winter and summer vacations from New York City. That meant I saw a lot of the Caribbean in my youth — both the beautiful and the sad.
Which was exactly what Belafonte’s calypso songs were about.
“Day-O,” about hard, all-night work on a banana plantation (“Come mister tally man, tally me banana… Daylight come and me wanna go home”); “Sylvie,” about a thirsty convict who’s lost his freedom and his love (“Sylvie, Sylvie, I’m so hot and dry…”); “Haiti Cherie,” about the heart-rending beauty and humanity of one of the most troubled nations on earth; “Jamaica Farewell,” (and yes, when he sang “I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town,” I pictured a four-year-old); “Cordelia Brown,” with its hint at the taboo of miscegenation (“Oh Cordelia Brown, what makes your head so red?”); and of course a bunch of songs spiced with ribald humor.
Perhaps the record that left the greatest impression was one that came a year later, in 1963 when I was six, and has remained much less known: Streets I Have Walked featured music from around the world and a collaboration with a choir of kids from a junior high school in Queens.
It was on this record that I first heard Woody Guthrie’s subtly haunting “This Land is Your Land”; the Japanese classic “Sakura”; the Hebraic love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (“Evening of Roses”), which I almost had the courage to sing at my wedding; the jaunty African “Mangwene Mpulele”; “Waltzing Matilda”; and, finally, “Come Away Melinda” (“…come in and close the door, your daddy’s not the man he was before they had the war”), which made me cry with every listen and I think may have made me anti-war for life.
Belafonte didn’t write these songs but he sang them in such a way that they became indelible. Take a listen to some of them and see whether you also can feel that spark of humanity and depth of commitment that Belafonte shared with Paul Robeson (whom Belafonte regarded as a mentor), Nina Simone, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, and Leonard Cohen — a few of the other miraculous singers whose voices live on (rent-free) in my head and keep me company through the years.
Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy.