Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Harry Belafonte's Songs Of Life and Progress

Harry Belafonte’s Sing Your Song: The Music (Sony Masterworks) has been issued to accompany the acclaimed documentary Sing My Music (showing on HBO as I type this) on him as well as his published autobiography My Song: A Memoir By Harry Belafonte (Knopf). 17 performances include some of his more famous ones as he developed from a folk troubadour to legendary singer, actor, social activist and an icon. It is a remarkable life he has lived and the music here is part of proof of that statement.

This compilation opens with Mark Twain and includes Leadbelly’s loving ballad Sylvie backed by just a guitar (and in the case of the latter number a vocal chorus). On both the warmth of Belafonte’s singing is evident. I was not familiar with his rendition of Lord Melody’s Mama Look a Boo Boo, but it was one of his earliest recordings of Calypso which he helped popularize and others (written with his collaborator Lord Burgess) include the brassy Cocoanut Woman, and Banana Boat Song (Day-0). The latter number helped make his album Calypso 1956 the first album to exceed 1 million copies sold. Mixed in with lovely ballads such as Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair), it helps explain his great popularity (and of course his looks did not hurt that).

He starred in the movie Island In The Sun, and with Lord Burgess contributed the marvelous title song with a marvelous orchestra. There is also a lively rendition of the folk round, Jump Down Spin Around, while his rendition of King Radio’s calypso Man Smart (Woman Smarter) was covered by the Grateful Dead and The Carpenters among others. “Jamaica Farewell” is another familiar Belafonte classic as he sings about leaving his little girl in KIngston Town. Belafonte’s regular accompanist at the time, Millard Thomas, has lovely acoustic guitar breaks on this, and followed by Mathilda, another of his celebrated recordings.

His musical horizons would expand to incorporate African sounds as on a lovely vocal duet with Miriam Makeba, My Angel (Malaika), initially set against a soft guitar and percussion backing. Jump In the Line is a brassy song for the Trinidad Carnival that will be familiar from those who have seen the movie Beetlejuice (several other of these songs were also in that movie’s soundtrack). A duet with Odetta A Hole in the Bucket, from a 1959 television special still is highly amusing over fifty years later. Turn the World Around with its afro-beat rhythm was recorded in the US but never issued in the US although Belafonte did perform this with The Muppets and some will know it from that. Can't Cross Over (River Come Down), comes from that same 1977 session.

Obviously this compilation only scratches the surface of Belafonte’s remarkable recording career. There are two subsequent studio albums and several concert recordings that post-date the music on this. Still, Sing Your Song: The Music stands up as a terrific selection of Harry Belafonte’s music which includes notes on all the songs and is highly recommended.

A publicist sent me a review copy.

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