I grew up with Harry Belafonte’s music. Among the first albums I remember hearing was “Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall”, released in 1960. Along with Belafonte I learned about the Chad Mitchell Trio, Miriam Makeba, and Odetta, and first heard the isXhosa language. At that same time I learned of The Limeliters, The Kingston Trio, Leadbelly, and Josh White; soon to be followed by The New Lost City Ramblers, The Weavers, Robert Johnson, Flatt and Scruggs; and by then I was hooked – with the folk revival soon to expand with new topical music by the likes of Bob Dylan, Richard & Mimi Fariña, and Phil Ochs. Delta blues led to Chicago blues and music had washed over me (and put me out of touch with my pop-music listening peers).
Belafonte lived from March 1, 1927 until April 25, 2023. Belafonte was a civil and human rights activist, singer, and actor. He introduced white America to calypso. Is that why we later learned of reggae and ska?
Belafonte also made it okay for white women to lust after Black men. White men were always allowed to lust after Black women – that’s how Thomas Jefferson had his children and biracial children appeared in the US – the progeny of enslaved women and their rapist enslavers. But check out this video of Belafonte on Ed Sullivan and see how the barely acceptable sexuality of Elvis Presley morphed into the acceptable sexuality of a Black man.
There is nothing overtly sexual in the portrayal, but here is a handsome Black man in a vest without a shirt. He is not portrayed as dangerous.
In 1957 he appeared opposite Joan Fontaine in “Island in the Sun”, banned in parts of the US due to its depiction of love between a Black man and white woman.
For those Deadheads who first heard this song as sung by Bob Weir, this is Belafonte singing “Man Smart, Woman Smarter” in Japan in 1960. It was released on his 1956 Album “Calypso”. While the Dead began performing this in 1981, it was first recorded by its composer, Norman Span, in 1936.
Belafonte appeared opposite Dorothy Dandridge in the 1954 film “Carmen Jones”, an adaptation of the Georges Bizet opera “Carmen”. Despite Belafonte’s career as a singer, his singing voice was dubbed.
For those who want the full effect, here is the album that introduced me to Belafonte.
While the visual memory I have is the “Returns” album cover, all of the songs on the first Carnegie Hall album are equally familiar.
The world has lost a great person, singer, actor, and activist. Harry Belafonte – ¡Presente!