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Given that, for people less than 40 years old, Harry Belafonte’s main claim to fame is soundtracking a levitating Winona Ryder in Beetlejuice, Belafonte’s memoir My Song and the career-spanning documentary Sing Your Song (currently airing on HBO) arrive at a propitious time. Like Paul Robeson before him, Belafonte charmed his way into the nation’s heart with a carefully crafted public image: Hits like “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Zombie Jamboree” were ingratiating, non-threatening, and vaguely exotic, injecting a touch of Caribbean culture into the American mainstream—Belafonte’s parents came from Jamaica and Martinique—without offending the delicate sensibilities of white audiences. It was a tricky balancing act, but at the same time, Belafonte was a prominent supporter of the nascent civil-rights movement, and a friend and advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. He also refused to play shows in the segregated South. He retired from singing in the early ’00s, but continued as an outspoken critic of American foreign policy, appearing alongside Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and calling then-president George W. Bush a terrorist. Before his sold-out reading at the Free Library Friday night, Belafonte sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about singing with livestock, the pivotal influence of Irish theater, and his long-delayed history of African-American music, The Long Road To Freedom.
The A.V. Club: The documentary takes its title from something Paul Robeson told you: “Sing your song, and people will want to know who you are.” But you were known for singing all kinds of songs, sometimes in very stagey context; there’s footage of you singing alongside livestock, or against a very sanitized representation of West Indian life. It’s a theatrical presentation, even stereotypical, a way to ease white Americans and even some African-Americans into looking at that part of the world.
Harry Belafonte: 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. What I came with was a desire to be in the performing arts as an actor. This opportunity that knocked at my door was when I was asked to play a part in a play where singing was required. Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck, directed by a very imaginative director who used the force of the balladeer, as it’s called in the program, to make the shift of mood, to make the shift of scenery, and to use the songs of the time, which were socially rooted, to make commentary on what was happening to the characters in the play. So I came to music and the power of music from this moment, and when I began to look for where to go for work and employment, it was the opportunity to take as an actor this environment of song and music and build a repertoire, which was pretty much the repertoire I’d been given in school, and say, “Okay, you may call it what you want—folk songs or whatever.” But I saw in it purpose, and I saw in it the chance to carve out an art form for myself. Because I really wore none of the credentials of what popular culture defined as the singers of the day. I was not a blues man. I wasn’t a pop singer. I wasn’t Frank Sinatra. I wasn’t Billie Holiday. I just came along as a guy who had an instrument and wanted to be heard.
AVC: You laid claim to many different traditions. Obviously, Jamaican music, but also Jewish music and “Shenandoah.”
HB: That became my well, my harvest. Paul Robeson sang in 14 different languages, not only spoke and read them, but also could write in them. And I looked at the multiplicity of choices that he had, and I said, “This guy touches everybody’s house.” So 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.
AVC: Song has tremendous power to work its way into people’s minds, but there’s a catch, which is that the music often overshadows whatever the song is about. Just about everyone knows “Day-O,” but many of them probably don’t realize it’s a song about the brutal life of a field worker. Is that something you wrestled with, that these songs were becoming popular, but perhaps the things you were singing about weren’t getting through to the same extent?
HB: That question resides in the instruction that Paul Robeson gave: “Get them to sing your song.” 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? Picking up the Haitian cause and making [Bill] Clinton—“That’s my song, Mr. President, and here is what you are not doing.” These things are all embodied in that.
My first deepest moment in being touched by the power of art was when, in this little black theater in Harlem, we were given a play called Sean O’Casey’s Juno And The Paycock, by an Irish playwright. About something that was very familiar to us—not in the facts of its own existence in Ireland, but in the spiritual sense we felt, as black people, what the Irish were feeling in their resistance against the British. Thank God that it was written in Irish brogue, because my West Indian accent made it kind of easy for me to speak to the text. That was the play that Paul Robeson came to see, and he came to see that play because his friend was Sean O’Casey. He couldn’t wait to get back to Sean O’Casey to tell him, “Wait ’til you see what black people are doing with your Irish play in Harlem!” And in that context, he said, “You’re touching a nerve center. You’re touching a place where you become the instrument through which all people are made familiar one to the other. You’re taking diversity and turning it into a social harvest for the growth of your own imagination.” So rather than fear who I am, listen to my song, and you might enjoy it and rejoice in wanting to join in on the harmony. These things are not just intellectual theory or something I’ve come up on; it was really what drove my consciousness every day.
AVC: Part of the power of music, or theater, is that you can bypass intellectual prejudices or preconceptions and grab people on an emotional level, almost before they know what hit them.
HB: Yes, absolutely. I think art, in the best sense of the use of art, the first sense to be deeply touched is emotion. The intellectual reasoning comes a little bit after the fact. I would like to be the instrument that challenges your point of view, especially if it’s one that’s prejudiced toward the negative. How do I step into your space and say, “Beyond what you think I am, let me reveal to you who I am. And part of who I am is that I delight in your song. Let me express that to you by singing it.” When I first went to Israel, and certainly when I first went to Germany back in 1957, or whenever it was, pop American artists in these places were not the code of the day. [Leonard] Bernstein and classical music had more of a universal space in terms of crossing borders, but pop art and pop culture had not yet invaded these places to the extent that they came.
AVC: Elvis probably hadn’t been to Germany by that point.
HB: He had not. I know that for a fact. I didn’t even want to go to Germany, because I came with the prejudice about the Nazis and what they had done and all that stuff. And through the force of persuasion and the smarts of who my bosses were, I said, “Okay, let’s take a day and go to Berlin.” I went to Berlin when there was no wall. Still, the Allied forces had it dissected. When I landed in the airport in Berlin, it was bleak and gray. There was no commerce. It was just the after the bombing period. I got to the hotel, and when we were bedding down in one of the few buildings that survived the bombing, you heard noises outside.
My conductor, Bob DeCormier, was in the Second World War, landed in Normandy, had had his arm shot off. When he came as my conductor to lead the orchestra, one of the things in his mind, because he didn’t want to go to Germany, he said, “Which one of them shot me?” And when he heard this noise, he came to the room and he said, “Do you hear that?” We opened the shutters in the room out to this little balcony, and I saw hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of white, blonde-haired kids and this noise was not “Sieg Heil,” it was “Harry! Harry! Harry!” I was stunned at the fact that there was this collective, this youth who had heard my song. They’d heard “Day-O.” What I delighted in was the fact that I stood before the audience in the Titania Palast as the first descendent of a black immigrant woman from the Caribbean, from America, standing as a black American in a German space with thousands of Germans singing “Hava Nagila,” about a people they had not too long ago cremated! The power of this moment, this kind of stuff, is really quite heavy.
When you get past all other interpretations, one of the things that helped me survive the perilous journey of political choice was the fact that I really never depended on America’s money and industry to be my sponsor. Always, I went directly to the audience. Even when I didn’t have a hit, when I didn’t have a TV show and I didn’t have a hit movie, my audiences… The last time I sang to an audience was 30,000 people in Hamburg, Germany. I decided at that time, “I’m at my place. I’m through. I’ll never do this again.” But to have 30,000 Germans sitting in the place saying, “We thank you for what you bring us, and we delight in being able to share this space, to know who we are in our time.” I stood with them. When I went to sing for the first time in East Berlin, who did I take to go with me? Udo Lindenberg. And who was Udo Lindenberg? This rock ’n’ roll rebel that really was very critical of the East German political policy. But I said to them, “You can’t have me unless Udo comes.” The two of us went there, made a statement to not only German youth in the east, but German youth everywhere. All of this to get them to sing your song. They want to know who you are.
AVC: Your musical anthology, The Long Road To Freedom, was a hugely ambitious attempt to trace the lineage of African-American and Afro-Caribbean music, from African songs to the blues, gospel, calypso, and other forms. It took 10 years to record, and another three decades for it to finally be released. What did you hope to accomplish with the project?
HB: What I saw was not only a way to use the power of song again, but in a non-threatening way, to go to the beginning of the African journey in America, from the coast of Africa to the dawning of the 20th century. And in that music, buried in the rural places of America, buried in the blues, buried in the plantations, buried in the voice of the gospel, I could say, “Let’s put all these songs together, but highlight the journey of black America in America.” These songs house an inner power of who we are and what we’re about. And all of these songs have metaphor. Because if you listen to the spiritual, if you listen to the gospel, it codifies the resistance of those people who made these songs up. And to bring those to an audience. In the book, we try to say much about what these songs are telling, so the people have kind of a guideline and a reference. Through this mechanism, people might delight in hearing more about what this history was—in particular, black people who also don’t know that history.