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Harry Belafonte's Song
Why Belafonte embodies the transformative power of a song
Welcome music lovers to another edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
It’s hard to believe that it’s now been, give or take a day, 18 months since I launched ‘Listening Sessions.’ This edition marks the 57th time I’ve hit send and sent my thoughts about music into the world. Writing about music has long been an ambition of mine and Substack seems to be the ideal platform to do so (even more so in the last few weeks!).
Focusing primarily on old music may not seem to be the best way to build an audience—not to mention also focusing on longer-form essays (my two pieces on Elvis Presley both topped 5,000 words!)—but it appears, to my deep and humble appreciation, that there is indeed an audience for this type of writing (again, Substack seems to be the ideal vehicle). Since the beginning of this year, my subscriber base has increased almost tenfold and continues to grow slowly yet steadily. Having the honour of being featured on ‘Substack Reads’ was a big reason for ‘Listening Sessions’’ growth (thanks again to fellow Substacker Kevin Alexander!).
As for the immediate future, I’m going to keep at this with more essays on the music that I love. Stay tuned in the coming months for thoughts on Stevie Wonder, the Beau Brummels, Paul Desmond’s recording partnership with Jim Hall as well as looks at some of the sounds of the upcoming holiday season. As well, once the new Substack Chat feature is rolled out for Android, I may give it a whirl to see if it can help further grow this community of music lovers.
To everyone who has joined me on this journey, I can’t thank you enough. You are all the absolute best!
And now, without future ado, onto this edition’s essay.
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In Mississippi, the summer of 1964 was Freedom Summer, a massive effort principally to get as many eligible Black voters in the state as possible registered to vote. Mississippi was chosen as the site as African Americans comprised over one-third of the state’s population yet just under 7% of them were able to exercise their franchise due to almost insurmountable barriers put in place to prevent them from getting on the voter roll. One of the tactics devised by campaign volunteers was to run freedom schools that would, among other goals, help Black Mississippians navigate the appallingly stringent requirements in place to prevent their voter registration from being approved, including a lengthy form and a quiz on the arcane minutia of the state’s constitution. Even if a registrant fulfilled all the requirements asked of him or her, the decision to grant the right to vote was rarely and capriciously given.
To set up a freedom school was why Freedom Summer activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner traveled to Lonsdale to speak with the members of Mount Zion Methodist Church on May 25, 1964. The White Knights of the Klu Klux Klan got wind of their visit and set the church on fire, and set themselves upon the church’s congregation—part of a statewide, rabid resistance to Freedom Summer.
The three young men returned to Longdale on June 21 to look into what happened and to meet with congregants. Leaving in a station wagon belonging to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), one of four organizations that comprised the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) that spearheaded Freedom Summer, they took a quicker route to return to COFO's head office in Meridian. Before leaving for Longdale, Schwerner had said to volunteers in the Meridian office that if they didn’t return by 4 p.m. to go look for them.
After a flat tire just outside of Philadelphia, they began to be followed by Deputy Sheriff Cecil Ray Price. After the activists stopped their car, Price called for two other officers for backup. That's when the trouble began. Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner were held at the Neshoba County Jail, with Chaney cited for alleged speeding, for approximately four hours.
Upon their release from jail, the three got into their car and were followed then abducted and then brutally murdered. At first thought to be missing, the bodies of the three activists were found in early August; it was the most deadly among a litany of violent acts perpetrated against Freedom Summer volunteers and participants during the campaign.
The senseless murders, a galvanizing event that helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, were the subject of the 1988 picture Mississippi Burning but in the immediate aftermath, they were also the subject of several folk songs, including ‘Those Three Are On My Mind,’ written by Pete Seeger and Frances Taylor. In 1967, Harry Belafonte included his interpretation on the album Belafonte On Campus.
Belafonte’s connection to Freedom Summer and the tragic deaths of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner ran far deeper than a song. On the night their bodies were found, Belafonte got a call from Jim Forman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), another of the organizations behind Freedom Summer. Forman told Belafonte that funds were urgently needed to keep the campaign going, especially as those volunteering, instead of taking two-week shifts, began to commit en masse to staying in Mississippi into the autumn.
Belafonte, arguably the most committed—personally, professionally and financially—of a coterie of committed entertainers—both Black and white—to the civil rights cause, was able to quickly raise $70,000, $20,000 more than what Forman had asked for.
That was the easy part. Getting the money to Mississippi was far more complicated. Wiring the money was out of the question. The banks in Mississippi also couldn’t be trusted. Belafonte quickly realized he would have to bring the money, in cash, personally. To do so, he enlisted his long-time friend Sidney Poitier to come with him. Belafonte and Poitier flew from Newark, New Jersey to Jackson, Mississippi. Greeted by Forman and two of his SNCC colleagues, they flew in a Cessna to Greenwood. After landing, the danger of Belafonte and Poitier’s mission was starkly apparent. They were soon dodging the Klan while being driven to where SNCC volunteers had gathered. The house where they bedded down for the night was protected by security.
When they arrived to make the drop of the needed funds, they were treated as the superheroes they surely were. In Belafonte’s memoir, My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race and Defiance, he writes that Poitier told the crowd of wearied yet profoundly encouraged volunteers, “I am thirty-seven years old. I have been a lonely man all my life … because I have not found love … but this room is overflowing with it.” Belafonte then writes that Poitier looked at him, the room falling silent, his cue to belt out “Dayyyyyy-OOOOOOOOOO” to start a sing-along of Belafonte’s signature song.
What power, if any, lies in a song?
Paul Robeson, the fiercely principled singer and political activist and a mentor to Harry Belafonte, once put it plainly: “Get them to sing your song and they will want to know you as a people.”
At a time when Belafonte’s most resonant reference point in pop culture may be the scene in Beetlejuice set to ‘Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)’ and where world music, and indeed, the music of the world, is all accessible at one’s fingertips (neglecting, for the moment, to consider whether ease of accessibility means meaningful absorption of music), it’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary Belafonte was, even as he was just recently honoured with an Early Influence Award at this month’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
At one point, the only artist selling more records for RCA than Belafonte, his long-time record label, was Elvis Presley. Once he decided to not simply strive to be a good jazz singer among many but to be a folk singer without peer, the world opened up for the New York-born and Jamaica-raised Belafonte. While there is truth to pointing out that he has been more a folk popularizer than a purist—his recordings often sculpted to a precise precision down to the last syllable—no one has advanced a more democratic, or panoramic, vision of folk music. Belafonte recorded work songs, Appalachian ballads, spirituals, blues, songs of the cottonfields and the chain gang, songs from South Africa, Greece and other parts in the world. His 1963 album The Streets I Have Walked, boils it down to one long-playing record, moving from a gospel shouter (‘Sit Down’) through songs in Hebrew (‘Erev Shel Shoshanim’), Sotho (‘Mangwene Mpulele’) to ‘Waltzing Matilda,’ ‘My Old Paint’ and ‘This Land Is Your Land’ to ‘Sakura,’ one of the best-known folk songs of Japan and ending with a haunting version of the apocalyptic ‘Come Away Melinda.’ And then, of course, there are Belafonte’s albums of calypso music.
Growing up, visiting an older relative’s home was exciting for many reasons, including the chance to see and explore the inevitable shelf or two of records. Almost always there were a few Harry Belafonte albums, and usually one of them was his first live recording from Carnegie Hall, recorded and released in 1959. Conceived as a series of song cycles, the first dealt with the Black folk tradition, the second with selections from the Caribbean and finally, songs from around the world. Belafonte concludes the concert with a remarkable, extended rendition of one of his first hits, ‘Matilda,’ in which singer, orchestra and audience unite as one to all sing together. Even as it’s clear as Belafonte weaves through the show’s attendees to join in on the infectious chorus that this is a well-honed routine, to focus on the performative aspect of what is taking place in the Hall is to miss the mission at its root. Keep Robeson’s maxim in mind (“Get them to sing your song and they will want to know you as a people”) and hear the wall of prejudice being chipped away, ever so slightly.
By 1967, Belafonte’s popularity had waned; his singing career primarily providing a critical source of funds for his civil rights activism. The genesis of the sole album he released that year, Belafonte On Campus, was an extended tour he took of college campuses. Author William Attaway, who penned the LP’s liner notes, described the tour as visiting 40 colleges over 44 days and that, in total, Belafonte and his troupe performed to approximately 250,000 concertgoers. The 11 songs selected were part of the setlist for the campus shows and are a mix of the contemporary and the canonical. While very little had been written about the recording—in Belafonte’s memoir, neither the tour nor the album are mentioned—it looms large in his discography.
Accompanying Belafonte is a small group of musicians: three percussions (Percy Brice, Auchee Lee and Ralph MacDonald), two guitarists (Al Schackman and Ernie Calabria), a bassist (Bill Eaton), all members of the singer’s touring group that, through the arrangements of Bill Eaton—another longtime Belafonte associate—accentuate the individual songs and keep the spotlight tight on Belafonte’s singing. Opening up the sound palette is a vocal chorus of 12 male voices. It is an arresting mix.
Take the album opener, ‘Roll On, Buddy,’ an adaptation of the work song ‘Take This Hammer’ which dates back to the 1870s (‘Nine Pound Hammer’ is another notable adaptation of the song). Over an incessant rhythm that may be a tad too fast, Belafonte digs into the beat, building to a vigorous call-and-response with the chorus, adding the occasional grunt to the drama. One can almost see the song being acted out—a reminder of Belafonte’s initial ambition to make it as an actor (an ambition he indeed achieved).
That’s a key to what makes Belafonte so irresistibly listenable. Through his exact phrasing, which would seem to denote performances of extreme calculation, his actorly intentions push through making clear that his performances are fusions of mind, heart, emotion and motion.
To communicate the roaming inherent in ‘The Far Side of the Hill,’ Belafonte favours a slow, deliberate approach that hangs way back on the beat, as if while singing—his acapella introduction is particularly scintillating—his eyes and ears are peeled for the call of wanderlust. Eaton’s arrangement slowly layers the musicians, creating a throughline for Belafonte to plot his performance that climaxes with Schackman and Calabria strumming their guitars vigorously as he slowly sings “the far side of the hill.” The musicians then fall back into tempo as Belafonte begins to sing the song again from the start for the fade out suggesting that the life of a rover is that of a ceaseless, endless search.
A similar travelling feel distinguishes Belafonte’s cover of Tom Paxton’s folk standard ‘The Last Thing on My Mind’—here, he is in front of the beat, befitting the kiss-off sentiment in Paxton’s lyrics if less chillingly expressed than what was typical of Dylan at the time. A second Paxton cover, ‘Hold On to Me Babe,’ has Belafonte in a far more languid mood, not entirely connected with the heartbreak expressed in Paxton’s lyrics. A shimmering guitar line is memorable but, truth be told, it's more befitting of a song where the protagonist is the one who has left the relationship as opposed to, as in Paxton's song, the one who has been left.
There are no such concerns with ‘The Hands I Love,’ an early version of a song that its author, Gordon Lightfoot, would soon retitle as ‘Song for a Winter’s Night.’ The primary change that Lightfoot would make is to swap out the refrain of “And to be once again with you” at the end of each verse with the more specific “On this winter’s night with you,” an astute change considering the banality of the initial line. Belafonte’s performance emphasizes how the male chorus is used throughout Belafonte on Campus to heighten emotion—a wordless undercurrent of sound cushions several lines and when Belafonte sings a line in unison with them, it’s an expertly added embellishment, a musical exclamation point. This touch is even more keenly used for the Scottish folk song ‘Waly, Waly’ (initially known as ‘The Water is Wide’). The swell of sound as Belafonte and chorus caress the melody, particularly on the fourth verse, is the winning ingredient in a moving performance.
The sound also dominates on ‘Sail Away Ladies,’ an adaptation of the skiffle song ‘Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O,’ popularized by Lonnie Donegan. Eaton arranges for a slow, building climb on top of an infectious beat that can best be described as a combination of calypso and rockabilly. Belafonte is in total command here, he leans in with ease and his interplay with the male chorus—they come in on the third verse with a response to Belafonte’s call and their contribution becomes progreessively more urgent with each subsequent verse—reminds that this is music that is not only auditory but visual as well. You can see it, imagining the staging and choreography, picturing how it mirrors the song’s trajectory to its soulful climax—Belafonte repeating “don’t you rock ’em” to the chorus’ “daddy-o,” first sung by the altos and then joined by the tenors and then the basses and finally the baritones, singer and chorus sustaining the final note most agreeably.
‘Delia,’ originally recorded by Belafonte in 1954 for his debut LP, Mark Twain and other Folk Favorites, bears the mark of an almost unbearable intimacy. Stripping away the filigrees—a female soprano, a backing chorus and an orchestra—that obscures the desolation at the heart of the song in his earlier version, here it is just Belafonte and primarily Calabria, alternating between a mournful riff and crying punctuations of the blues. There is a hypnotic stillness to ‘Delia.’ Hear Belafonte's elongated phrasing of “Delia, Deeeelllliiiiaaaa, where you been so longggggggg?” and how he employs his range, almost growling at certain points and at others, allowing certain notes to evaporate at the highest point of his register to bring vivid life to the song’s lyrics.
‘Those Three Are On My Mind’ has a similar feeling. Its’ eulogizing of Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner is deeply personal—as illustrated earlier in this essay—with the emotion raw almost to the point of feeling that to listen is to eavesdrop on someone’s very private grief. The guitars of Schackman and Calabria play a repeated riff as if lifting up the three martyrs of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer as Belafonte offers his prayer.
To close Belafonte on Campus on such a sorrowful note would be to deny the power of resilience, as vital an ingredient in life as it is in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Part of that resilience lies in humour.
Earlier in 1967, Belafonte produced A Time for Laughter: A Look at Negro Humor in America, an episode of ABC’s anthology series ABC Stage 67. Hosted by Sidney Poitier, it featured, among others, comics Moms Mabley, Pigmeat Markham, Godfrey Cambridge, Richard Pryor and Dick Gregory. In addition to producing, Belafonte performed as well. The song he offered, ‘The Dog Song (Your Dog),’ also closes Belafonte on Campus. Pointing out the absurdity at the heart of racism and discrimination, it puts forward in song an idea that Gregory explored, especially as he began to perform in comedy clubs with mostly white clientele and dealt with the inevitable racist taunts and slurs. The idea was to react by ignoring the barb, denying the bigot the satisfaction of inflicting a wound through words and then winding up for the verbal kill. Gregory once wrote, “The quick, sophisticated answer. Cool. No bitterness. The audience would never know I was mad and mean inside. And there would be no time to feel sorry for me. Now I’d get that comeback.”
Similar to Gregory, Belafonte may have been bowed sometimes, but he was never broken. How many have had their interest ignited in other cultures, people, countries and languages because of Belafonte and his songs? As Poitier said when Belafonte was honoured at the Kennedy Center in 1989, “we owe him so much.”