Harry Belafonte: Five Essential Songs
Harry Belafonte’s lifetime of work as a civil-rights activist loomed so large in his later years that it can sometimes be easy to forget what a singular legacy he had as a musician. No one had ever sold one million copies of an album before Belafonte did it with Calypso in 1956 — in that sense alone, he paved the way for everyone from the Beatles to Drake. With his polished reinterpretations of traditional Caribbean songs, including ones from his parents’ home country of Jamaica, he enriched the mid-century folk revival beyond measure, and his unprecedented success helped open doors for generations of musicians who came after him. Belafonte’s death at age 96 closes one of the most remarkable careers in pop history. Here are five classic songs that show his impact.
“Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” (1956)
The song that made calypso a household word in the Eisenhower-era U.S. began decades earlier on the docks of Jamaica, where day laborers sang it during their long shifts loading bananas onto export ships. That traditional work song, whose rhythm and style are closer to mento than calypso, came to Belafonte via his friend Lord Burgess — a dedicated scholar of Caribbean folk music whom another peer called “the black Alan Lomax” — and co-writer William Attaway. It was perfect for what Belafonte had in mind for his third album, even if his label wasn’t so sure. “No one at RCA Victor… had wanted to devote a whole album to Caribbean island songs,” Belafonte wrote in his 2011 memoir. “RCA’s executives worried that this kind of album would be too ethnic, too black, too out of the mainstream.” Instead, Calypso became the music industry’s first-ever million-seller, and Belafonte became a superstar. And even if the audiences that bought “The Banana Boat Song” by the bushel weren’t thinking about the power dynamics on those docks, Belafonte was. “Here was a song about struggle, about black people in a colonized life doing the most grueling work,” he told PBS’ Gwen Ifill years later. “And I took that song and honed it into an anthem that the world loved.” —S.V.L.
“Jamaica Farewell” (1956)
Belafonte’s next hit was this bittersweet ballad, where the narrator laments everything he left behind in Kingston, from the national dishes (“Ackee, rice, salt fish are nice”) to the girl he loved. The singer, who was born in Harlem to parents who’d come there from Jamaica, interpreted those words with a subtle ache that evoked countless diasporic stories — in its understated way, it’s one of the most moving lead vocals of the folk era. The song was another traditional gem that Lord Burgess had arranged and reworked, this time based on an original known as “Ironbar.” Much later, Belafonte came to regret the impact of this then-common songwriting practice. “Neither Burgess nor I was doing anything illegal in this, because the songs weren’t copyrighted,” he wrote in his memoir. “Still, I would come to feel guilty about that. If there was no author of record to credit or pay, we might still have passed along a slice of our profits — somehow — to the islands whose cultures had generated those songs. The truth was, we never did.” —S.V.L.
“Man Smart (Woman Smarter)” (1956)
Instances of Harry Belafonte’s wisdom and intelligence are well documented, but the moment that should top any list of Belafonte’s intellectual achievements may be in recording “Man Smart (Woman Smarter).” The lyrics to the song, first recorded in 1936 by Norman Span, present this simple argument: “I say let us put man and a woman together/To find out which one is smarter/Some say man, but I say no/The women got the men beat, they should know.” Even cleverer, Belafonte led a joyous singalong of men singing “smarter” and “that’s right, that’s right” every time he proposes his thesis. There’s even a rare little bit of growl in Belafonte’s voice — the sound of conviction — that lets you know he truly believes “the woman is smarter.” Anyone who disagrees can sleep on the couch. That’s right! —K.G.
“A Hole in the Bucket” (1960)
Belafonte’s 1960 duet with Odetta of this “old German folk song,” as Pete Seeger later described it, not only became one of his most popular recordings, it also served as further proof of the breadth and scope of the singer’s inspiration. The song offered a way for Belafonte, already established and with a global hit to his name, to shift the spotlight to the up-and-coming Odetta in a number of giant platforms where white America would be watching: A year before releasing the song on a live album recorded at Carnegie Hall, he invited her to perform the song on his 1959 television special. The humorous children’s song would end up charting in the U.K, and almost even made it onto the U.S. charts. And it endures as one of Belafonte’s most lasting collaborations. —J.A.B.
“Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)” (1961)
“Jump in the Line” lived many lives before reaching Harry Belafonte’s microphone. The Trinidadian artist Lord Kitchener wrote and recorded the upbeat carnival celebration in 1946, and the remaining scratchy vinyl recordings that survive show a looser, swaying horn melody with completely different lyrics. After clarinetist Woody Herman recorded it in ’52, another Trinidadian, Lord Invader, turned it into a Labor Day anthem, which the Jamaican artist Lord Flea revved up in ’57 to become the “shake, shake señora” version that Belafonte latched onto a couple of years later. With an easier tempo and a greater emphasis on Belafonte’s bright vocals (really, who can have a bad day when you hear him proclaim, “OK, I believe you”?), the tune became a natural dance hit. A generation later, it achieved a brilliant afterlife in 1989 as the music for the closing sequence in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. —K.G.