Harry Belafonte: ‘This country reveals its moral decay every day of its existence’

Harry Belafonte: ‘This country reveals its moral decay every day of its existence’


Following Harry Belafonte’s death at age 96, Rolling Stone‘s obituary recounts:

Born in 1927 in Harlem, Harold Bellanfanti was the son of immigrants from Jamaica. His first creative love was the theater. He and Poitier got into acting together, which spun off into Belafonte’s music career. Before he became known, he was once backed by a band including Charlier Parker and Miles Davis; a switch to Caribbean music followed as Belafonte became entranced by the folk music of his parents’ homeland. His first major single, 1953’s “Matilda,” was a stew of styles, including calypso and the Jamaican folk form mento.

He struck gold with that formula in 1956 with his biggest hit, “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” a jaunty yet haunting ode to dock workers on the night shift. It appeared, along with the hit “Jamaica Farewell,” on his 1956 album Calypso, which spent a staggering 31 consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart.

He continued to have hits into the Sixties, including the lively “Jump in the Line (Shake, Señora)” from 1961, but the arrival of acts like the Beatles and Bob Dylan marked a downshift in Belafonte’s generation of performers. Ironically, Belafonte’s 1962 album Midnight Special gave a young Dylan his first professional recording credit as a musician and harmonica player on the album’s title track.

Still, Belafonte was an entertainment icon — and his increasingly vocal stance regarding civil rights was a risky move. “I was at the height of my success. Hit records and movies, and being rewarded by millions of people coming in attendance to the audiences that I played around the world,” he remembered in 2016. “The machinery of oppression was always at work trying to discredit me, make me a communist, make me unpatriotic, etc., etc., etc. And it takes a lot of courage to stand up in the face of that onslaught, that reactive moment and not bend to the wind.”

Belafonte walked it like he talked it. For instance, in a tale he recounts in his 2011 memoir My Song, he and Poitier drove from New York to Mississippi in 1964 with $50,000 in cash to bail out jailed volunteers who were arrested trying to register Black voters — and the duo dodged Ku Klux Klan bullets in the process. Less dramatically but no less profoundly, he and fellow pop star Petula Clark bucked would-be censors in 1968 when they appeared on an NBC special together — and Clark touched Belafonte’s arm while they sang, a gesture of interracial intimacy that the show’s producer found offensive and wanted removed. The duo refused, and the uncut segment aired. [Continue reading…]

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