The first Harry Belafonte albums I ever bought must have been back in the late ’50s. There were two of them, Belafonte and Calypso. At the time I was into The Weavers and Leadbelly, and Belafonte was another voice in the folk singing army that was beginning to make itself heard around the country. I remember tucking the LP’s in next to a well worn copy of The Weavers at Carnegie Hall. The first time I ever saw him perform was on the stage of a Brooklyn nightclub called the Town and Country. I remember thinking at the time that this was kind of a strange venue to host a folk singer. Later the Town and Country became the home base for a troop of female impersonators called the Jewel Box Revue, definitely not the place for a folk singer.
I bring this up because it seems to me that back then at the time he was making a big name for himself, there was a sense among some of us in our ignorance that there were folk singers who were activists, like Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, and Belafonte wasn’t one of them. There was a sense that there were folk singers who were authentic like Leadbelly, and the sweet-voiced Belafonte wasn’t one of them either. Next thing you know he’s in Hollywood making movies and he’s a movie star, again not quite what we had come to expect from the typical folk singer.
Of course, Belafonte had seemingly never been concerned with playing to other people’s expectations. So when he turned up marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. and we discovered that he’d been a civil rights activist all along, those of us who knew little more about him than “Matilda” were kind of shocked. The extent of what many of us didn’t know, or maybe didn’t want to know, is made abundantly clear in the HBO documentary, Sing Your Song, which aired earlier this October. Not only was the man a fighter for civil rights in this country, but also a humanitarian involved in the struggle for social justice around the world.
In conjunction with the documentary and the release of an autobiographical memoir, My Song, Sony Masterworks has released Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song: The Music, a compilation of some of his most prized recordings. The album’s 16 tracks feature selections from his earliest efforts through to some of his later work. It includes classic Belafonte like the “Banana Boat Song,” “Sylvie,” and “Jump Down, Spin Around.” There is the plaintive lullaby of “Scarlet Ribbons” and the raucous “Man Smart (Woman Smarter).” There are calypso favorites “Jamaica Farewell,” “Mama Look A Boo Boo,” “Cocoanut Woman,” and, of course, “Matilda.”
The set also includes “My Angel,” a duet with Miriam Makeba sung in Swahili and a comic duet, “A Hole in the Bucket,” with Odetta from his 1959 TV special, Tonight With Belafonte. “Island in the Sun” was written for the film in which the singer starred. The latest tracks included are the title song and “Can’t Cross Over” from his 1977 Turn the World Around album.
For those unfamiliar with the singer’s work, this album has a generous selection of his best. You couldn’t ask for a better introduction. For those of us who have loved him for years, it offers a good opportunity to replace some of those worn-down, scratched LPs with the sounds of our youth. Either way this album is a joy.