MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, a show of vocal jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
This week, a look at singer Harry Belafonte. A film idol, a celebrated stage performer, and a best-selling recording artist, Harry Belafonte became a star in the 1950s, and then used his stardom to fight for equality in the 1960s. Coming up, I’ll explore aspects of Belafonte’s recording career, which included folk songs, work songs, calypso, and the American songbook.
It’s The Musical World of Harry Belafonte, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "ONE FOR MY BABY"
Harry Belafonte with a rare jazz standard. That was Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road). That comes from his 1958 album for RCA Records called Belafonte Sings The Blues. Around this same time, Belafonte was busy performing standards and his typical folk and calypso songs in Las Vegas, sharing the strip with other performers like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr.
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re celebrating the legendary Harry Belafonte, and his work blurring genres and fighting for change in the 1950s and 60s.
Harry Belafonte is known today mostly for popularizing calypso music in the mid-1950s, channeling his Jamaican roots. But his musical roots go much deeper than calypso—he was an active performer of folk songs and work songs, championed the American songbook of Broadway and film, and even dabbled in jazz. All the while, he infused his artistry with a political message, something that very artists were able to do so effectively. Even on a song like this, his iconic 1956 hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)”—it’s a traditional work song, a song about struggle, and the grueling labor of colonized Black people in the Caribbean.
MUSIC CLIP - HARRY BELAFONTE, "THE BANANA BOAT SONG (DAY-O)"
Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927, the son of two mixed-race immigrants from the Caribbean. He grew up in poverty, spending part of his youth in Harlem, and part of his youth in Jamaica.
MUSIC CLIP - DAVE BRUBECK, "BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?"
Music surrounded him—whether it was the jazz and Tin Pan Alley in New York, or the mento and calypso music from Jamaica. He served briefly in the Navy during World War II, where he began to learn more about racial discrimination, both in his firsthand experiences, and more broadly from some of the college-educated soldiers he met.
MUSIC CLIP - PAUL ROBESON, "OL' MAN RIVER"
After the war, he was back in New York, and eager to help make a change. He decided that the best way to effect change was through the arts. He soon began to appear on stage in productions with the progressive American Negro Theater, befriending fellow actor Sidney Poitier, and later with the Dramatic Workshop. After one performance, he met Paul Robeson, who served as a model for Belafonte, an actor and singer who used his fame to fight for progressive social change.
In a 1947 production of Of Mice And Men, Belafonte was asked to sing Depression-era folk songs during set changes, and his career as a singer was born. That same year, he wrote a song for a production called “Recognition,” a bluesy cabaret number about racial equality.
MUSIC CLIP - HARRY BELAFONTE, "RECOGNITION"
Belafonte became attracted to Black artistic innovation of all kinds, which led him to the growing bebop jazz movement in New York.
MUSIC CLIP - CHARLIE PARKER, "BE-BOP"
He spent time at the Royal Roost, making friends with musicians like Lester Young and Charlie Parker. By 1949, he started to perform sporadically at the venue himself, singing jazz standards like “Pennies From Heaven” and “Skylark” between sets. Max Roach played drums on his first night as a performer. His week-long contract with the Roost was stretched to nearly six months, and soon people were coming just to hear him sing.
Later that year, Royal Roost promoter Monte Kay helped Belafonte secure a record deal with Capitol, where he would record a few singles with arranger Pete Rugolo. His musical persona was still not yet fully formed, and on the songs, Belafonte sounds less like himself and more like jazz-pop singer Billy Eckstine. Let’s hear one of those early tracks now.
This is Harry Belafonte with the Jerome Kern standard “They Didn’t Believe Me,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, “THEY DIDN’T BELIEVE ME”
Harry Belafonte with a Capitol recording from 1949, performing the jazz standard “They Didn’t Believe Me.”
Although Harry Belafonte's first big musical break came from singing jazz at the Royal Roost nightclub, he never felt entirely comfortable in the genre. He couldn’t improvise like the bebop performers he frequently performed with, and he quickly grew tired of singing Tin Pan Alley love songs, longing for something with more lyrical depth.
MUSIC CLIP - JIMMY GIUFREE, "TWO KINDS OF BLUES"
He basically retired as a jazz-pop singer in 1950, after a gig in Miami Beach. Despite the high pay, he was appalled at how Black artists like himself were treated in the segregated south. He was forced to stay at a different motel, was subjected to a curfew, and was told he couldn’t interact with his white female fans off stage.
He moved to Greenwich Village, started working at a restaurant, and began to explore another genre whose social and political themes more closely-aligned with his own values: folk music. In an interview, Belafonte said, quote, “When I was a jazz singer, I found I had nothing to contribute to the field. In folk music, on the other hand, I can use my voice and my dramatic training.”
He was, at first, somewhat reluctant to sing folk music. Folk singers much more popular than him at the time had been targeted and blacklisted, due to their progressive politics and communist sympathies. But Belafonte still remained under the radar.
The folk songs he was most attracted to were ones that resonated with his own heritage, work songs from the African diaspora. He worked with his friend and musicologist Bill Attaway to create a set of folk songs, work songs, and calypso to perform at the Village Vanguard in 1951. His performance at the Vanguard was an immediate sensation. Soon he was making appearances on television, signing a recording contract with RCA, and being courted to appear in films—all while also attracting the scrutiny of anti-communist politicians.
Let’s hear a few of Belafonte’s early folk song recordings now. First, this is Harry Belafonte from his first RCA album in 1953 with the traditional American work-song ballad “John Henry,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, “JOHN HENRY”
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, “MATILDA”
Harry Belafonte in 1955 with one of his first hit songs, the traditional calypso song “Matilda.” That comes from his self-titled RCA album, which became the very first album to top the new Billboard Pop Album chart in 1955. Before that, the traditional American folk song “John Henry.” That comes from his 1954 debut album Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites.
Harry Belafonte’s nationwide fame began to grow exponentially in the mid 1950s. He made more frequent appearances in marquee nightclubs, including a stint in Las Vegas at the Riviera. He appeared in a Broadway revue, guest starred on television, and started to transition into film. He co-starred with Dorothy Dandrige in the film Bright Road and the musical Carmen Jones, an all-black adaptation of the opera Carmen (where, strangely, Belafonte did not sing—his voice was dubbed). Moreover, his fame as a recording artist grew, especially in the fairly new medium of the long-playing record.
MUSIC CLIP - PHINEAS NEWBORN, JR., "PUSH DE BUTTON"
His 1956 album Calypso became, in particular, a sensation. It became the first LP to sell a million copies, and stayed on top of the charts for over 30 weeks. It was an album of all Caribbean songs, adapted or written mostly by composer Lord Burgess. If you want to get specific, not all of the songs were actual “calypsos.” Some were in the similar “mento” style, instead. He followed up this album with similar LPs like Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean in 1957 and Jump Up Calypso in 1961. But Belafonte insisted that he would not be limited. On stage and on record, he also devoted himself to folk songs from other genres, and he continued to stay devoted to social causes as well.
Let’s hear a few more of these Caribbean songs now. First, this is the first song he recorded for the album Calypso. This is Harry Belafonte with the mento ballad “Jamaica Farewell,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "JAMAICA FAREWELL"
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "KINGSTON MARKET"
From the 1961 album Jump Up Calypso, that was Harry Belafonte with “Kingston Market.” Before that, from the best-selling 1956 album Calypso, Belafonte with “Jamaica Farewell.” Both of those songs were written and adapted by Lord Burgess.
We’ll explore other sides of Harry Belafonte’s musical world [in just a bit] [still ahead in this remembrance]. Stay with us.
MUSIC CLIP - CAL TJADER, "DESCARGA CUBANA"
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - MARTIN DENNY, "JAMAICA FAREWELL"
MUSIC CLIP - SONNY ROLLINS, "HOLD 'EM JOE"
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been celebrating the work of Harry Belafonte this hour in, and in our celebration of African-American Music Appreciation Month.
In 1956, Harry Belafonte achieved worldwide fame with his million-selling record Calypso, which kicked off a calypso craze. At first, Belafonte seemed to capitalize on it a bit. He released two more Caribbean-themed albums, and co-starred in the Caribbean-themed film Island In The Sun, which featured him in an interracial relationship with actress Joan Fontaine, a minor scandal in 1957. Belafonte was soon dubbed “The King of Calypso,” but it was a moniker he was eager to shed.
He doubled down on diversifying the music he recorded. In the five years after Calypso, he recorded a Christmas album, a blues album, and an album of spirituals. On stage, he remained devoted to folk music, using the traditional folk music of African-Americans or other oppressed people worldwide to tell stories of struggle. He also remained closely aligned with political causes, and started using his fame, influence, and money to support fights for equality, including the growing Civil Rights movement.
Let’s hear a few songs he recorded now from the American songbook. This first one was written by a singer with whom he had a lot in common, Billie Holiday. Like Belafonte, Holiday often used her art for political change; like when she sang the anti-lynching anthem “Strange Fruit” in 1939. Here is a different song, one that she wrote in 1942.
This is Harry Belafonte in 1958 with his rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "GOD BLESS THE CHILD"
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "OH, I GOT PLENTY OF NOTHIN'"
Harry Belafonte with two jazz standards, and two different takes on having money. Just now, we heard “I Got Plenty Of Nothing,” from his 1959 RCA album Porgy and Bess, featuring all the song from Gershwin’s folk opera as performed by him and his friend, fellow Civil Rights activist and singer Lena Horne. It’s curious that he recorded this album at all because not long before this, Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy in the film adaptation of Porgy and Bess, thinking the characters and story were too demeaning to Black people. That role eventually went to his friend Sidney Poitier. Before that, we heard Belafonte in 1958 with Billie Holiday’s song “God Bless The Child.” That comes from his album of mostly standards called Belafonte Sings The Blues.
As the 1960s began, Harry Belafonte’s priorities began to change. He became dissatisfied with racial stereotyping in the film roles he was being offered, so began to focus more on music and on his involvement in political causes. He became close with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped organize, publicize, or bankroll many civil rights demonstrations, including the March on Washington in 1963.
In addition to civil rights, Belafonte also was a staunch supporter of labor rights. And this implicit support for labor rights can even be heard in his music. In 1960, he received a Grammy Award for his album Swing Dat Hammer, a collection of traditional chain gang work songs. Let’s hear a track from that now.
This is Harry Belafonte and The Belafonte Folk Singers with the traditional work song “Rocks and Gravel,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "ROCKS AND GRAVEL"
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "MIDNIGHT SPECIAL"
Harry Belafonte, with two traditional American folk songs. Just now, we heard him in 1962 performing the train- and prison-themed folk song “Midnight Special,” from his album of the same name. A young Bob Dylan was actually featured there playing harmonica, one of Dylan’s very first professional recordings. Before that, the traditional chain gang work song “Rocks and Gravel,” from Belafonte’s 1960 album Swing Dat Hammer.
While Harry Belafonte’s left-leaning politics became more conspicuous through the 1960s, his music often became more conservative. As the folk movement moved into the hands of younger activists like Bob Dylan, Belafonte’s version of folk music was often seen as more benign, especially on albums like In My Quiet Room from 1966 or Belafonte Sings Of Love from 1968.
However, Belafonte’s musical perspective did expand in this decade. He recorded more of what might be called “world music,” making albums with Greek singer Nana Mouskouri, and several with South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba.
MUSIC CLIP - HARRY BELAFONTE AND MIRIAM MAKEBA, "MALAIKA (MY ANGEL)"
Belafonte spent much of his later years continuing to fight for humanitarian causes, many of them in Africa. He, along with Makeba, opposed apartheid. He was active in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and was one of the key figures involved in organizing USA For Africa and the mega-hit charity single “We Are The World.”
MUSIC CLIP - USA FOR AFRICA, "WE ARE THE WORLD"
One of his last big musical successes came in 1977, after he had signed with Columbia Records, and showcased Belafonte’s new focus on world music, especially the music of Africa. The album was called Turn The World Around. In fact, the album wasn’t even released in the U.S.! However Belafonte did perform the title song (famously) on the Muppet Show, a performance that Jim Henson considered one of his favorites. When introducing the song, Belafonte said the following about it, which in many ways, can be considered a credo for his entire artistic life. He said, quote:
“All of us are here for a very, very short time. And in that time that we’re here, there really isn’t any difference in any of us… if we were to take time out to understand each other. And the question is: do I know who you are, do you know who I am, do we care about each other? Because if we do, together we can turn the world around.”
Here is Harry Belafonte in 1977 with “Turn The World Around,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - HARRY BELAFONTE, "TURN THE WORLD AROUND"
Harry Belafonte in 1977 with his original song “Turn The World Around.”
And thanks for tuning in to this Harry Belafonte edition of Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - MONTY ALEXANDER, "JAMAICAN SHAKE"
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow.