Can a song truly make change?
In an increasingly complex, divided and uncertain world, it's a fair question that has no easy answers. As a child, though, I can tell you I believe the answer was yes. After all, there was Harry Belafonte's "Turn the World Around."
It's funny to think that a song from one of Belafonte's final studio albums - far removed from the unprecedented success of 1956's Calypso, the first LP claimed to sell a million copies - and one that didn't even get a considerable domestic release. It took the color and vision of Jim Henson to make it known far beyond its grooves when, in the winter of 1979, Belafonte sang the song on an episode of The Muppet Show.
Watching Belafonte smile and sing alongside Muppets in African tribal masks might seem incongruous at first. Here was a proud Black man, who beat through barriers as a cinematic box-office draw while dueling Elvis for the top of the Billboard album charts; using all the social and financial goodwill afforded to him to fund protest organizations and pay the rent on a New York apartment for Martin Luther King, Jr. to stay in. Just existing caused racists to lose their minds, whether romancing Joan Fontaine on screen or allowing Petula Clark to clasp his arm during a television special. Were foam and felt really the natural course on which his career must follow?
Some may see it that way. I see it like this: when a colorful performance of a catchy song finds you as a child, you might not forget it. You might see "Turn the World Around" - a favorite of Henson's which Belafonte reprised at the Muppet master's colorful, untimely memorial in 1990 - or see a seance of snobs get down to "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)" in Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, a sweatered man singing happily in the chorus to USA for Africa's "We Are the World," hear two songs in 2011 reach the Top 40 off the strength of the same Belafonte sample. You experience these things, you feel good about the music - and you might question where it comes from. You'll learn about Belafonte's elevation (but not exploitation) of calypso and island folk traditions to audiences who didn't know what they were missing. You discover his textbook-worthy activism as well as an outspokenness that sometimes challenged the warm fuzzy honorifics bestowed upon him. You celebrate a man that a friend texted me today was "proof of karmic vitalization - live in goodness and activism and age gracefully all the way to 96."
Yes. All that from one song on one episode of one television show. Imagine where others boarded the train over the past eight decades. Can one song truly make change? I can't speak about the world - but I can certainly speak about myself. Long may Harry Belafonte's memory live.
Harry N Cohen says
Thank you for such a beautiful tribute. Harry lived a long, productive and beautiful life. Listening to his music today, I was not sad; I was thankful and joyful that this glorious man was on the earth for nearly 100 years.
His album Pradise in Gazankulu (1988) is terrific! Recorded in South Africa a few years after Paul Simon's Graceland. Why this album hasn't been re-released on CD since then is strange. Maybe it will now after his death?
I wish he would have done more albums in that style, with songs written by Jake Holmes. Instead it proved to be his last studio album ever. He was only just over 60 at the time and continued to tour long after that.
Paradise In Gazankulu was released on cd on the EMI MANHATTAN label (CDP-7-46971-2) Totally agree, it is a superb album. The duet with Jennifer Warnes 0n Skin To Skin is sublime. Produced by the legendary Hilton Rosenthal (Johnny Clegg etc) and recorded in Johannesburg with crack African musicians. It is still easily available on cd at a reasonable price. Discogs have over 30 copies for sale.
John Epstein says
What a lovely tribute to a remarkable man.
William Wright says
For my money the best two albums of Belafonte's were the Carnegie Hall Concerts. These show Belafonte truly having fun and making sure the audience who was there were also having fun. From the opening Darling Cora to the playfulness of Matilda on the first Carnegie Hall album, to the interaction of him and the Belafonte Folk Singers (listen to Didn't It Rain) as well as his introducing the Chad Mitchell Trio (they're from my hometown Spokane, Washington) Belafonte always knew how to draw an audience. There was only one time in his career when things got a bit testy and that was when he did Don't Stop the Carnival on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Overall, HARRY BELAFONTE will be missed for both his activism and his music; I don't see another like him coming along any time soon. If you've never experienced a great live album (or two) then I urge you to grab Belafonte At Carnegie Hall, sit back and listen to it and then be amazed that such power could come from a guy who was in his 30's when the album was recorded. Belafonte truly was a great man and that extended to his music as well. Truly he will be missed!