All of us see the world as it exists; fewer envision what it might look like if made to change; and fewer still try to put together the people and ideas that make change happen. Paul Robeson was one; Martin Luther King, Jr. was one; Bobby Kennedy became one. And, of course, Nelson Mandela. I had just enough vision to see that they were visionaries, and to do what I could to help.
– Harry Belafonte, My Song

Growing up in the 1950s, Harry Belafonte’s velvety voice was ubiquitous: ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ on Housewives’ Choice, ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ at Christmas (two of my Mum’s favourites) and ‘There’s A Hole In My Bucket’  and ‘The Banana Boat Song’ (Day-O’) on Children’s Favourites.  By the sixties I’d tuned out, regarding Belafonte as a relic of the staid, conservative times from which my generation were energetically extricating ourselves.  So I had no sense of Belafonte the political activist and committed civil rights campaigner.  When it came to the March on Washington in 1963, it was Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter Paul and Mary that I saw on the platform, unaware that Belafonte had helped organise the protest.

Belafonte only swam back into my consciousness in the 1980s, watching with my toddler daughter the episode of The Muppet Show that had Harry Belafonte as star guest – the one where he talked about African mythology and how the elements turn the world around before singing ‘Turn the World Around’.

So I learned a great deal from the very fine documentary Sing Your Song which I watched the other day at FACT.  Directed by Susanne Rostock, who has made a number of documentaries about political issues, the film is more autobiography than biography, being produced by his daughter Gina, raspily narrated by Belafonte, and released at the same time as his memoir My Song.  What becomes clear right from the start is that, in telling his life story, Belafonte intends to focus less on his career as an entertainer, instead highlighting his enduring engagement with political issues.  The pre-credits sequence is intense and powerful – an explosive montage of images from key political struggles with which Belafonte has been associated skilfully intercut with the sound of African drums.

Harry Belafonte with Martin Luther King

The story begins with Belafonte returning to the apartment building in Harlem where he was born in 1927, the son of a Jamaican cleaning lady, Melvine Love, and a ship’s cook, Harold Bellan­fanti, who soon abandoned the family leaving Harry with little more than his name:

I was born into poverty, grew up in poverty, and for a long time poverty was all I thought I’d know.

The film briefly narrates his early life – growing up in Jamaica, before returning to Harlem in his early teens where he discovers the American Negro Theatre and the excitement of performing.  From there the film follows Belafonte’s rise from the jazz and folk clubs of Greenwich Village and Harlem to his emergence as a star.

But little time is spent on details that usually occupy hagiographic accounts of a superstar’s career. Belafonte, now 85, wants to focus on how, in America in the 1950s and 1960s, even for someone as successful and high profile as Harry Belafonte, life meant enduring the same Jim Crow laws and prejudices that every other black man, woman and child in America was facing. Following in the footsteps of  inspirations such as Huddie Leadbetter and Paul Robeson, Belafonte refused to back down, and became deeply committed to the civil rights movement.  It was the politics, he has said, that impelled him to compile this memoir:

The tugging by my daughter, Gina, to document my own journey. For many years I had resisted prodding by several who felt that I should both write and film my story. The idea as an end in itself seemed too self-serving. But I was awakened to the possibilities of making such a commitment by revealing the stories that could be told of and by all those with whom I shared an unending quest for justice.

Belafonte and John Kennedy

He tells how, in 1956, with ‘Day-O’ top of the Billboard chart, ‘one day I picked up the phone to hear a courtly Southern voice say, ‘You don’t know me, Mr. Belafonte, but my name is Martin Luther King Jr’.  Never content to simply be an entertainer, Belafonte, even at great personal cost, became deeply and passionately involved at the heart of the civil rights movement and countless other political and social causes. The film reveals the key role he played – for example, helping to organise the 1963 March on Washington, and acting as a conduit between Dr. King and the Kennedys, educating them about the situation in the American south and steering them towards a clearer commitment to civil rights.  At the heart of this was his close friendship with Martin Luther King, and one of the most moving sequences in the film recounts his personal devastation at Dr. King’s death.

Belafonte speaking at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington
Belafonte speaking at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington

The film recounts how Belafonte tirelessly raised funds for the movement and got fellow luminaries to lend their support – their is some remarkable  footage of Sammy Davis Jr, Shelley Winters, and Nina Simone performing at a concert for marchers that Belafonte organised before the last leg of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march.  Another dramatic account tells how he enlisted Sidney Poitier to accompany him on a dangerous trip to Mississippi, in the summer of the freedom rides in 1964, to deliver funds to civil rights workers.

Sing Your Song integrates original interviews with a wealth of archival material from home movies to newsreels and film and TV snippets.  One with which the film illustrates how deeply institutionalised racism was in America at the time occurred when, recording an episode of a TV show in March 1968, Belafonte was singing a duet with Petula Clark and the two touched. Chrysler, the show’s sponsor objected to the ‘interracial touching’ fearing to offend Southern viewers.  Both Clark and Belafonte refused to re-shoot the performance.

In another archival clip from a 1963 CBS special, Belafonte participates in a discussion about the March on Washington with some fellow marchers (all of them men) – Sidney Poitier, Marlon Brando, James Baldwin, Charlton Heston (huh?) and the film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It’s an amazing piece – both for the seriousness of discussion and their clarity, on network TV, about seeking radical change in America.

Yet another piece of archive footage, probably never seen before now, is of a segment from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on CBS in 1968 in which Belafonte sings ‘Don’t Stop the Carnival’ against a backdrop of newsreel footage of police brutality during the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  The entire clip was never aired by CBS and ultimately resulted in the show being cancelled by CBS.

Belafonte and Marlon Brando
Belafonte and Marlon Brando

After detailing the dramatic events of 1968 – the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy – the film seems to jump a couple of decades, with Belafonte recounting how his activism increasingly shifted to Africa, where he campaigned against apartheid and hunger, and teamed up with great African musicians such as Miriam Makeba.  The film records how Belafonte travelled to Ethiopia during the 1985 famine and went on to inspire the USA For Africa album and video of ‘We Are the World’ to raise funds for famine relief.

Belafonte worked with Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Angela Davis to garner support for the Native American occupation of the town of Wounded Knee, and protested American involvement in Haiti that led to the coup against the elected radical populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

More recently, as the film records, Belafonte demonstrated for peace in Iraq, and has spoken out about the injustices of child and black incarceration in America, and the criminalization of poverty.  He denounced the American justice system for its ‘prisons filled with victims of poverty’, describing the situation as ‘the new slavery’ and arguing that jail has become the most commonly used instrument to deal with the issue of race.  In response to the crisis of incarcerating young people, he has created The Gathering for Justice to stop child incarceration.  Another dramatic clip used in the film shows a distressed five year old girl being physically restrained and shackled by security guards in a classroom.

Harry Belafonte, now 85, has not eased up on his political activism.  He supported the Occupy protests, and Sing Your Song ends with the same question with which the film opens:

What do you do now?

Here is how Philip French reviewed this excellent film in The Observer:

Susanne Rostock has long worked as an editor on American political and society documentaries, including a number directed by Michael Apted, and Sing Your Song, which she both directed and edited, is a skilfully compiled celebratory biography of Harry Belafonte. He was born into poverty in Harlem in 1927, raised in his father’s native Jamaica, and after serving at sea in the US navy at the end of the second world war, he worked as a janitor before being drawn into the theatre. From the late 1940s on he was primarily a singer, becoming sensationally successful in the 1950s as the “King of Calypso”. Sadly he has made only a handful of films, three of them minor classics – Carmen Jones, Odds Against Tomorrow and Kansas City, a role that Robert Altman had to talk him into playing.

This excellent film, eloquently narrated by its octogenarian subject in that wonderfully husky voice, carefully balances an account of his career in show business with his 50-year commitment to civil and human rights in America and around the world, not just for fellow African-Americans but for Native Americans, Hispanics and people throughout Africa. The two aspects are of course closely interwoven, for he has courageously used his popularity and his charismatic presence to challenge the colour bar in the media, to attract attention to causes he believes in and to recruit his fellow performers to lend their support. The film’s title, which reflects the way his life is integrated, comes from a piece of advice his hero Paul Robeson gave the young Belafonte when he dropped in at a folk music club where Harry was performing. “Get them to sing your song,” Robeson said, “and they’ll want to know who you are.” For the most part Belafonte appears to use his power and influence wisely and well, and he emerges at the end as a man of bravery and probity, a formidable contributor and witness to his times.

In this Guardian video, Harry Belafonte tells Sarfraz Manzoor about his life and work in music, cinema and fighting for social equality. He also discusses his friendship with Martin Luther King, his relationship with President John F Kennedy, and the humiliation that led him to become more heavily involved in the fight against racial segregation.

The trailer for Sing Your Song:

‘Island in the Sun’

‘Turn the World Around’ from The Muppet Show

Belafonte interviewed on Canadian TV in 1967:

On 24 April 1961 Bob Dylan earned a $50 session fee for playing harmonica on Harry Belafonte’s rendition of ‘Midnight Special’.  It was his recording debut:

And finally … hearing ‘Day-O’ again, I was reminded of Stan Freberg’s take on ‘The Banana Boat Song’; as a kid I thought it was hysterical.  I think it’s still pretty funny…

See also

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4 thoughts on “Harry Belafonte: Sing Your Song

  1. Here is a story as told by Harry Belafonte to Bono (I almost feel the need to preface this with a disclaimer of some sort, that often seems to be the case where Bono is concerned, journo’s often seem edgy (no pun intended) about him and his motives, or maybe it’s just U2’s music).
    In confronting one of his own personal challenges, U2 singer Bono referred to a story about one of the world’s most famous civil rights leaders.
    Bono was asked to explain why a radical rock star, renowned for humanitarian activism, appeared to be supporting the conservative U.S. president, George W Bush. To answer that question Bono recounted a story told to him by another famous singer, Harry Belafonte.
    Belafonte told Bono about a meeting with Martin Luther King Jnr, the great, civil rights leader. At that time, the early sixties, the U.S. civil rights movement seemed to have hit a stone wall. Robert Kennedy had just been appointed U.S. attorney general. Famously disinterested in the civil rights movement, Kennedy’s appointment seemed catastrophic to King’s supporters. (I think Kennedy had ordered the Secret Services to ‘bug’ Kings phone calls and he being of Irish descent, it was perceived that there was a social pecking order in place, English, Irish, Hispanic, Italian, Jewish, Negro and would do King et al no favours)
    At the meeting, King’s dejected team voiced their despair at the turn of events. When he’d heard enough, King slammed his hand down and ordered them all to stop.
    “Is there nobody here who has got something good to say about Bobby Kennedy?”
     The reply was that there was nothing good. To this King replied:
    “Well, then, let’s call this meeting closed. We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one thing redeeming to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.”
    Martin Luther King had demonstrated why he was to become one of history’s most charismatic leaders. He wouldn’t hear any more negativity about Bobby Kennedy. Instead he wanted his team to find the positives in what seemed a lost situation. These positives would be used to turn that situation around.
    As it turned out, Robert Kennedy was very close to his bishop, and King’s supporters used this to their advantage. They befriended the bishop, possibly the one man who could get through to the attorney general.
    This was the positive action King had been looking for and Kennedy’s change of heart was momentous. Belafonte’s story ended with these words:
    “When Bobby Kennedy lay dead on a Los Angeles pavement, there was no greater friend to the civil rights movement. There was no one we owed more of our progress to than that man.”
    Bono concluded:
    “Whether he (Belafonte) was exaggerating or not, that was a great lesson for me, because what Dr King was saying was: don’t respond to caricature, the left, the right, the progressives, the reactionary. Don’t take people on rumour.
    Find the light in them, because that will further your cause.”
    In a famous leadership quote Martin Luther King once said:
    “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
    Some lesson to learn I guess, how many of us could work with those who hold views that repel us.

  2. It WAS some learning curve, for a former assistant counsel to the McCarthy hearings. But, as King surmised, it does show that individuals can make such journeys of understanding. Yet it is, I think, the hardest thing to do – to recognise the human possibilities in someone with opposing views to our own.

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