Everybody’s in the minstrel show
October 4, 2013 9:06 AM   Subscribe

“Oh,” says the ad man. He’s responsible for the hour of primetime television Revlon has bought and turned over to Belafonte, who, by the way, will not be singing “The Banana Boat Song,” and has also decided that he won’t accept commercials. “Oh my god,” says the ad man. Belafonte grins now, and says what he thought then: “Swallow that sh*t, motherf***er.” The Revolutionary Life of Harry Belafonte.
posted by Potomac Avenue (36 comments total) 93 users marked this as a favorite
I watched that Harry Belafonte documentary earlier this year. I always knew the guy was awesome. I never knew quite how awesome he was.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:23 AM on October 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

I know someone who chose Harry Belafonte as her Higher Power for a twelve-step program. I could see why at the time, and every new thing I learn about him confirms that further. Thanks for this.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:36 AM on October 4, 2013 [13 favorites]

Really interesting and enlightening article, I'm not sure I was ever completely aware of how important a figure he was in the drive towards and through the civil rights movement. It's interesting at how palpable his anger to the injustices of the past and the desire to continue forward on the unaccomplished tasks of that movement. Thanks for providing the link.
posted by vuron at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2013

A fascinating text log of the 1959 Revlon Revue.

This eBay listing (for a reel-to-reel transcription of the show) has a few mp3 samples at the bottom.
posted by mykescipark at 9:54 AM on October 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

I searched high and low for a youtube version. It's not out of print, TCM at least seems to have a copy. This must be released eventually we really need it in the world.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:58 AM on October 4, 2013

somewhat strange lede, though. "Once, more than half a century ago, he was the handsomest man in the world"? Is he talking about the Harry Belefonte the rest of us know? What's this 'half a century ago' nonsense?
posted by lodurr at 10:11 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had no idea. I want to see that. Now.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:12 AM on October 4, 2013

I got only two things from the ex-wife -- an incredible daughter & Harry Belafonte's Greatest Hits. I really don't know a whole lot about the man, but the power of his voice on his version of Michael Row The Boat Ashore is mind-bending.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:12 AM on October 4, 2013

lodurr I guess the author is implying he was most handsome around age 30? That would be ~56 years ago.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:15 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh I see, I hadn't read far enough. Seems pretty clear the lede is explicitly referencing the Revlon revue, which the piece goes on to talk about in detail. That was in 1959, just over half a century ago. I feel silly now.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:19 AM on October 4, 2013

I think Lodurr meant he's still the most handsomest. Which isn't too much of a stretch. He's certainly the most bad-ass 80+ year old I can imagine.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:40 AM on October 4, 2013

I love my copy of Beafonte at Carnegie Hall. It's amazing music, although a little goes a long way. But I particularly like his direct manipulation of ethnicity. Yes, he sings Day-O, does the happy Caribbean minstrel thing. But then he also does Hava Nageela and Danny Boy. Because fuck you New York, that's why. Really all that's missing is Dixie, although Shenandoah makes a pretty good stand-in.
posted by Nelson at 10:41 AM on October 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Great story about a great man. I wonder about his self-deprecating take on his voice, how his acting fooled everyone into thinking he was a singer. Maybe the standards for crooners were higher in the 1950s, or range was considered more important than it is today, but I like his silky tone and resonating conviction.
posted by ecourbanist at 10:55 AM on October 4, 2013

yes, potomac avenue, that was what I was awkwardly attempting to express. also, he just seems to exude this sense of effortless coolness.
posted by lodurr at 10:56 AM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, he sings Day-O, does the happy Caribbean minstrel thing. But then he also does Hava Nageela and Danny Boy. Because fuck you New York, that's why. Really all that's missing is Dixie, although Shenandoah makes a pretty good stand-in.

Aside from Belafonte's paternal grandmother being Jewish, he has a deep connection to his choices of songs to sing, and the message is quite the opposite of "because fuck you":
I didn’t come from a musical tradition. I didn’t come from the church. I didn’t come from gospel. I came from an environment. I didn’t come with a banjo across my back like Woody Guthrie or the rest. None of that. {...} Because I really wore none of the credentials of what popular culture defined as the singers of the day. {...} I just came along as a guy who had an instrument and wanted to be heard. {...} I began to learn Jewish songs and Spanish songs and songs in Swahili and African dialects. I broadened my public base, and the information that I imparted to people stimulated those who were the recipients of hearing their song sung.
Paul Robeson once gave him the advice as a performer, "Get them to sing your song." Belafonte evidently considered that long and hard:
Well, what is my song? What do I choose my song to be? How does that inform? I’m living in a time of great racial upheaval and resistance. What do white people really bring to an audience who sees me for the first time, who are deeply scarred by racist theory? When I, a black man, walk on a stage, what does the white audience really think about? Do you think about that I am something that should be relegated to a place of oppression? Or do you want to welcome me into your life as somebody who performs and delights? Do you see me in another dimension? How do I say to the Jew, “I share your mission, your purpose, your existence, and by singing your song, that says, ‘Let us have peace. Let us rejoice,’” and to do it in a way that the Jew delights in it? How do you say it when you talk to the people in Haiti and you sing their music, “Mèsi Bondyé” and the other songs that I sang?
His careful cultivation of his repertoire meant that when he went on tour to Cold War-era Germany in 1957, he sang "Day-O" and "Hava Nagila" and all the rest for Berlinners a few years before the Wall went up.
posted by Doktor Zed at 11:13 AM on October 4, 2013 [20 favorites]

That was a fucking brilliant interview.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:25 AM on October 4, 2013

Thank you very much for posting this -- this is an absolutely fascinating, wonderful piece.
posted by Rev. Syung Myung Me at 11:50 AM on October 4, 2013

He did a moving piece at Jim Henson's funeral. It is one of my favorite Muppets songs. turn the world around The conversation he has with Fozzie on inspiration is deeper than it seems in that muppet episode. It was a moving eulogy and a great song to send off a friend.
posted by jadepearl at 12:32 PM on October 4, 2013 [8 favorites]

Harry Belafonte is a helluva man. This another great piece from Jeff Sharlet. Thanks for posting it, PA.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:43 PM on October 4, 2013

That was a fantastic article. I'd have been happy with just the story of delivering the $70,000 to civil rights workers by hand, but the context makes it even better.
posted by rock swoon has no past at 1:54 PM on October 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Thank you for this great interview, Potomac Avenue - Harry Belafonte is one of my lifetime heroes. The entertainer is just the gateway to the man, who used (and still uses) his power and celebrity to do so much good and inspire such hope. And PeterMcDermott, thanks for the note about the documentary - I did not know about that - just paid to see it online, it's a must see, such a remarkable man.

At one point in the video, Bill Clinton as president is presenting him with an award and saying how Belafonte had inspired him and scolded him -- he's still at it: Harry Belafonte Calls out Jay-Z and Beyonce....very disappointed by young black celebrities

I think this has been on mefi before, not sure - but this is quite the remarkable video clip: When Heston, Poitier, Brando, Baldwin, and Belafonte Sat Down to Talk Civil Rights.
posted by madamjujujive at 4:23 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Great post, thanks. HB is one of those people that the more you learn about them, the more you admire and become fascinated by them.
posted by Miko at 5:46 PM on October 4, 2013

Just finished the whole thing - what a great piece. I am so sorry that Amos and Andy movie did not get made. Altman was right, and it had the potential to be a very important film, done right.
posted by Miko at 6:11 PM on October 4, 2013

His life is an object lesson that we are able to have our work stand for something bigger than ourselves, no matter the profession.
posted by droplet at 6:12 PM on October 4, 2013

This is incredibly timely for me-- my mother chose his autobiography for her book club this fall, and of course she wanted to play the many records she still owns but she no longer has a turntable. I ended up downloading a bunch of Belafonte for her and not only was it glorious to hear that voice again, but I managed to find the entire album of chain-gain songs, including Bald-Headed Woman, and it was a revelation. I'd known Calypso Belafonte, and grew up listening to the Carnegie Hall and Greek Theatre live recordings (as well as the Christmas album, which is gorgeous beyond measure and can reliably make me cry), but those old songs were and are amazing.
posted by jokeefe at 6:44 PM on October 4, 2013

Belafonte’s closest call came in 1964. He’d tapped Frank Sinatra, Fonda, Brando, Joan Baez, and his own funds to raise money for the Mississippi Freedom Summer’s voter-​registration drive. Then three activists disappeared. On August 4, the FBI found the bodies. That night one of the leaders of the voter drive called Belafonte. Change of plans. Originally, volunteers were to work two-​week shifts. Now, they were going to stay—​every one of them. They needed more money.

“How much?” Belafonte asked.

“At least fifty thousand dollars,” the activist said—​within three days. There was no way a black man in New York could wire $50,000 to a civil-​rights activist in Mississippi. Somebody would have to hand deliver. Belafonte called Poitier: “They might think twice about killing two big niggers,” Belafonte told him. When they landed in Jackson, a handful of activists hurried them into a Cessna that took them to a dirt runway in Greenwood. As soon as they stepped off the plane, the pilot wheeled around and took off. Belafonte remembers a single light bulb dangling over a gate to the dirt road beyond; Poitier believes there may have been two. When they got into the car, a pair of headlights across the field popped on.

“Federal agents,” Belafonte told Poitier.

“Agents my ass,” said their driver. “That’s the Klan.” The driver, a man named Willie Blue, made straight for the lights. At the last second he veered off. “Faster, man!” shouted Belafonte. Uh-​uh, said Willie Blue. Deputy would pull them over and they’d wind up just like the three boys the feds pulled out of the river. The car jolted when the truck behind them began ramming. It’s okay, said Willie Blue. As long as they could stay in front, the men in the truck couldn’t draw a bead.

Close to town, a convoy came out to meet them. Hundreds of activists, white and black, were waiting in a dance hall. The applause, remembers Belafonte, was like nothing he’d ever known. He let the crowd fall quiet. Just Mississippi night. Then he sang.

Day-​o! Day-​o-​o-​o!

He changed the words.

Freedom, freedom, freedom come an’ it won’t be long.

When the song was over, Belafonte held up a black doctor’s bag and dumped $70,000 in small bills on a table.
posted by jokeefe at 6:57 PM on October 4, 2013 [19 favorites]

The mention of the range of his early music sent me to YouTube to this great playlist. Some fantastic videos in here.
posted by Miko at 7:00 PM on October 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Should you happen to be in either NYC or LA, it appears that you can watch the special at the Paley Center.
posted by Shmuel510 at 9:04 PM on October 4, 2013

I am in awe. Thanks so much for the post. I only knew him as a singer.
posted by Goofyy at 1:03 AM on October 5, 2013

Wow. I love his anger and empathy.

And he was one of our Grand Marshalls at NYC Pride this year.
It really did make me proud.

What a mensch.
posted by mer2113 at 10:43 AM on October 6, 2013

He is mentioned glowingly in the new Jim Henson biography too.
posted by DigDoug at 8:27 PM on October 7, 2013

Here's the most recent ended auction, which dropped from the prior auction price of $59.99 USD to $49.99. I hope this gets re-posted, because I would buy this and digitize it, because it sounds amazing.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:37 PM on October 8, 2013

Here's a large image of Belafonte and Martin Luther King, Jr. laughing (source), possibly "the rarest of images of King: busting a gut with laughter, eyes squeezed shut, not the noble Christ figure we’re used to now but a fat, jolly Buddha."

This is an amazing article, but my only gripe is the lack of images directly related to the moments discussed, like the one mentioned above. Perhaps getting the rights to the right images was too expensive, and perhaps I'm naive in a time when images are re-hosted willy-nilly, but it seems like the piece could benefit from a short image gallery, if not embedded images. VQR doesn't need a flashy interface, just a few more photos. There are a ton of interesting photos of Belafonte and King, and they could probably find some links for the Ebony and Essence articles (I looked, but I'm not 100% sure I found the right ones).
posted by filthy light thief at 8:06 AM on October 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's the most recent ended auction, which dropped from the prior auction price of $59.99 USD to $49.99. I hope this gets re-posted, because I would buy this and digitize it, because it sounds amazing.

I went ahead and wrote the seller directly and bought it for $40. Now I just have to get the damn thing transferred... :-)
posted by mykescipark at 9:29 AM on October 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

You are my hero! Keep me/us updated! I'm sure there are plenty of transfer facilities in your area, I know there are a few in my little big city.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:36 AM on October 9, 2013

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