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Harry Belafonte’s musical genius — and the demands for social justice in his sound

He has always viewed the arts as a ‘social mechanism’ to help effect change

It was 1956, and Harry Belafonte was about to usher in the era of the megaselling record. When the Harlem heartthrob entered New York’s Webster Hall Studios in 1955 to record an album of Caribbean folk songs, he could not have imagined how fateful the sessions would be. Commencing his performance of a traditional Jamaican tune called “Banana Boat Song,” Belafonte stood back from the mic to accentuate the studio’s cavernous acoustics, then hollered the song’s haunting opening verse:

Day!

Me say day-ay-ay-o!

Daylight come, and me wan’ go home …

Today, some 62 years after that legendary studio performance, “Banana Boat Song” stands as one of the greatest achievements in recording history, a performance so captivating, it sent Belafonte’s career spiraling into the stratosphere. Calypso — the 1956 Belafonte album from which “Banana Boat Song” is culled — became the first album in history to sell a million copies within a year, a feat not even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley had accomplished. In all, Calypso spent an astounding 31 weeks atop Billboard’s album charts, 11 of them consecutive. As the roots music journal No Depression wrote, Belafonte’s breakthrough success was a major tremor during “the first quake of late 20th century pop culture.”

This year, on the occasion of Belafonte’s 90th birthday, Legacy Recordings has released a 19-song retrospective featuring hits such as “Jamaica Farewell,” “Matilda,” “Jump in the Line,” and, of course, “Banana Boat Song.” Titled When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte, the collection showcases the newly recorded title track, a children’s choir version of the singer’s 1957 hit “Island in the Sun.” The new track was recorded as a means of introducing kids to Belafonte’s music, and promoting Belafonte’s lifelong belief in the concepts of racial unity and gender diversity.

Ultimately, the retrospective reminds us of Belafonte’s gift for delivering vivid stories, such as “Those Three Are On My Mind,” wherein the singer mourns the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner at the hands of Ku Klux Klansmen — I think of Andy in the cold wet clay … with his comrades down beside him on that brutal day. On “Brown Skin Girl,” Belafonte employs Jamaican patois to illustrate how American soldiers exploited the women of the Caribbean:

Now I tell you de story ’bout Millie

Well, she made a nice blue-eyed baby

And dey say she fancy the mother

But the blue-eyed baby ain’t know she father …

Even “Banana Boat Song” is revealed to have deeper meaning than its radio-friendly melody might suggest, with lyrics detailing the perils of dock work (A beautiful bunch o’ ripe banana / Hide the deadly black tarantula). Presaging the Caribbean-inspired reggae movement, “Banana Boat Song” now ranks in the Grammy Hall of Fame with other quintessential recordings, including Duke Ellington’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” and more.

The Legacy Recordings retrospective serves to underscore the curious ironies of Belafonte’s recording success. Though he became a music phenomenon – his 1954 album, Belafonte, was the first album to top the newly formed Billboard album chart — the singer never viewed the arts as a path to fame and riches, but rather as a “social mechanism” to help effect change. It’s also important to note that Belafonte started his entertainment career as an actor, studying theater at New York’s famed New School, where visiting lecturers such as Paul Robeson taught him that art is the “radical voice” of civilization.

Belafonte started his entertainment career as an actor, studying theater at New York’s famed New School, where visiting lecturers such as Paul Robeson taught him that art is the “radical voice” of civilization.

“All the great voices that came to instruct us thought about theater as a social instrument,” Belafonte told the Aspen Institute in 2015. “Not once in that institution did I hear about Hollywood, or did I hear about ‘star,’ or about making a lot of money … the purpose was to use the power of theater as a transformative tool.”

Belafonte would build his career — indeed, his very life — upon the lessons learned at the New School (he would go on to work alongside Martin Luther King Jr., and helped organize the historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery March). Yet while Belafonte has enjoyed an illustrious acting career — he belongs to an exclusive club of multifaceted entertainers who have earned an Emmy, Oscar and Tony, along with three Grammys — his greatest impact has been in music.

Listening to recordings such as “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” and “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair),” it seems probable that Belafonte made little distinction between acting and singing, viewing both as interchangeable forms of creative expression. His skill for dramatic narration — not to mention his thespianlike gift for inhabiting the characters in his songs — partially explains why he had success with tunes other singers such as Dinah Shore had previously failed to chart.

It’s a testament to Belafonte’s talent that his 90th birthday retrospective leaves you wanting more. Fortunately, much of the singer’s decades-spanning catalog is available separately, allowing the uninitiated to discover why Belafonte’s work has been sampled by modern artists, including Lil Wayne, Jason Derulo and Pitbull. Recently, rock diva Ann Wilson of Heart ranked Belafonte’s At Carnegie Hall atop her list of favorite live albums. Testimonials from younger artists like these is perhaps the best birthday gift an elder statesman like Belafonte could ever receive.

Bruce Britt is an award-winning writer and essayist. He lives in Los Angeles with his three dogs and his Fender Stratocaster guitars.