Time for another entry from Michael Gray’s forthcoming Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. This week, it’s the turn of Harry Belafonte.
The book will be available around the world, in bookstores and on-line, on June 15th.
Belafonte, Harry [1927 – ]
Harold George Belafonte was born on March 1, 1927 in Harlem, New York City, though his father was from Martinique and his mother from Jamaica. At the age of eight he and his brother Dennis were sent to school in Jamaica (reports vary as to whether their mother went with them or sent them away to boarding school). He returned to the US to attend high school but dropped out at 17 and served in the US Navy during World War II.
First returning to civilian life as a maintenance man, he became a highly distinguished and politicised musician and actor. His first RCA album, in 1954, was Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites; his third, Calypso in 1956, was the first album to sell over a million copies, spent 31 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, started the calypso craze and made him forever associated with ‘Day-O’, aka ‘The Banana Boat Song’. His first film role was in 1953’s goody-goody movie Bright Road, but 1959’s Odds Against Tomorrow, which he co-produced, was the real thing, and the first American film noir to star a noir American.
He was an early supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and grew more radical, rather than less, as he aged, despite being festooned with awards and official appointments (like being made a UNICEF goodwill ambassador in 1987). On the syndicated daily radio and TV news program ‘Democracy Now!’, he once quoted Malcolm X on modern slave equivalents: ‘There was two kinds of slaves. There was the house Negro and the field Negro. The house Negroes, they lived in the house with master, they dressed pretty good, they ate good ’cause they ate his food and what he left. . . . In those days he was called a ‘‘house nigger’’. And that’s what we call him today, because we’ve still got some house niggers running around here.’ And on a San Diego radio station in October 2002, Belafonte called Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice ‘house slaves’ serving war-mongering master George W. Bush. Accepting the Human Rights Award for 2004 from the San Francisco-based group Global Exchange, he said in his acceptance speech: ‘We have got to bring Corporate America to its knees, not just in defeat but perhaps in prayer. To understand that we can come together, we can make a difference, a world that is filled with people who are nourished, a world that is filled with people who can read and write and debate and have exchange and dialogue.’
In 2005 he compared the Bush administration to the Third Reich. Three years earlier he said of his United Nations work: ‘I go to places where enormous upheaval and pain and anguish exist. And a lot of it exists based upon American policy. Whom we support, whom we support as heads of state, what countries we’ve helped to overthrow, what leaders we’ve helped to diminish because they did not fit the mold we think they should fit, no matter how ill advised that thought may be.’ Belafonte also heads a group called the Urban Peace Movement, and 20 per cent of his income goes to the Belafonte Foundation of Music and Art, which helps young blacks study for careers in the arts.
Dylan fans used to believe that Bob played harmonica on only one track (the title track, as it happened) of the Belafonte album Midnight Special because all the re-takes drove him to impatient despair; the assumption was that Dylan found Belafonte tedious, ponderous, over-polished, too showbiz: a mainstream drag for whom he had no respect. It’s hard to pin down a source for this belief, but it was widespread for many years. In Chronicles Volume One, Dylan blew this rumour out of the water with a surprisingly long and strong tribute to Belafonte, as folk artist, actor and human being. He wrote:
‘Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist, sang about lovers and slaves — chain gang workers, saints and sinners and children. His repertoire was full of old folk songs . . . all arranged in a way that appealed to a wide audience, much wider than the Kingston Trio. Harry had learned songs directly from LEADBELLY and WOODY GUTHRIE . . . one of his records, Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean, had even sold a million copies. He was a movie star, too . . . an authentic tough guy. . . dramatic and intense on the screen. . . . In the movie Odds Against Tomorrow, you forget he’s an actor, you forget he’s Harry Belafonte. His presence and magnitude was so wide. . . . As a performer, he broke all attendance records. He could play to a packed house at Carnegie Hall and then the next day he might appear at a garment center union rally. To Harry, it didn’t make any difference. People were people. He had ideals and made you feel you’re a part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry. He appealed to everybody, whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers, even children—everybody. He had that rare ability. Somewhere he had said that he didn’t like to go on television, because he didn’t think his music could be represented well on a small screen, and he was probably right. Everything about him was gigantic. The folk purists had a problem with him, but Harry — who could have kicked the shit out of all of them—couldn’t be bothered, said that all folksingers were interpreters, said it in a public way as if someone had summoned him to set the record straight. . . . I could identify with Harry in all kinds of ways. Sometime in the past, he had been barred from the door of the world famous nightclub the Copacabana because of his color, and then later he’d be headlining the joint. You’ve got to wonder how that would make somebody feel emotionally. Astoundingly . . . I’d be making my professional recording debut with Harry, playing harmonica on one of his albums. . . . With Belafonte I felt like I’d become anointed in some kind of way. . . Harry was that rare type of character that radiates greatness, and you hope that some of it rubs off on you. The man commands respect. You know he never took the easy path, though he could have.’
Despite Dylan’s comments, Belafonte was not always averse to TV. When he became the first black American to win an Emmy award, it was for his first TV special, ‘Tonight with Harry Belafonte’. Belafonte and Dylan came together again after a gap of over 20 years when both appeared on Live Aid and sang on the fund-raising single ‘We Are the World’ in 1985.