Season 1 Episode 4 Transcription
For over nine decades, Harry Belafonte has devoted his life to culture bending entertainment, bringing world folk music to a wider audience, and fighting injustice in just about every region of the planet.
And now it’s my job to put the focus on just two evenings in April of 1959.
This might be the toughest one yet. Tough because my admiration for the man runs so deep. Luckily his memoir, My Song, is there for the reading and a documentary, Sing Your Song is there for the viewing. Both paint a broader picture of the human force born Harold George Belafonte Jr March 1, 1927 in Harlem, New York City, New York.
He spent 5 years living in Jamaica as a boy where he soaked up the culture—especially the music—of the region his mother was born into. Harry left high school to join the navy before returning to New York where the theatre captured his imagination. He met his first mentor, Paul Robeson, after a performance of Sean O’Casey’s Juno & the Paycock. Harry was on stage, Paul was in the audience. To this day, Harry credits Paul Robeson as his role model for his activism and using his art to fight injustice.
Harry began singing in night clubs to support his theatre habit—mostly popular jazz of the day—but it was folk music that resonated with him most—especially after hearing Leadbelly perform at the Village Vanguard in Manhattan.
Inspired by Leadbelly, Harry learned more about the folk music of his Caribbean heritage as well as traditional music of all kinds—songs he discovered in the American Folk Song Archives at the Library Of Congress.
His night club appearances lead to a recording contract and his charismatic charm landed him roles on stage, screen and television.
By April of 1959, when he recorded Belafonte Live at Carnegie Hall, he had one a Tony, had the first million selling album in both the USA and England, and starred in four major Hollywood movies. He also has been credited with starting the Calypso music craze, which was prominent in the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s. Not long after the Carnegie Hall performances, Harry became an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement, raising huge amounts of dollars as well as the spirits of the tireless workers and organizers attempting to bring equality to all people. His dedication to these issues continued from decade to decade. Here’s Harry accepting an an award from the NAACP in 2013—the year he turned 86.
So, as you can see, keeping this episode focused just on the two nights he performed at Carnegie Hall in April of 1959 won’t be easy. But I am up for the task.
These two performances were historic for many reasons. First of all, aside from comedy albums, live performances were rarely released on record. Belafonte at Carnegie Hall wasn’t the first, but it was close. There is also a big difference between recording a single performer telling jokes into a single microphone, and balancing a 47 piece symphony with a singing audience, a small acoustic combo, and a dynamic performer roving all over the Carnegie hall stage. The dynamics—the sonic highs and lows—were dramatic, to say the least. In this case, RCA was up to the task. Well, I guess I should say sound engineer, Bob Simpson was up to the task. Belafonte at Carnegie Hall is considered to be the grandaddy of live albums by countless audiophiles for its presence, its pop and its performance.
When Belafonte at Carnegie Hall was released by RCA Records in 1959, it was released as a double album. As a throwback to Harry’s theatre days in was divided into 3 acts. Act one was titled moods of the American Negro. After the orchestra plays a brief overture Harry opens with Darlin’ Cora—a song first collected as a field recording in 1918, so you know it is probably much older than that. Was it a coincidence that the same song—with the slightly different title, Darling Corey—was also the opening of the historic Weavers concert at Carnegie Hall four years prior.
It doesn’t take long for Harry to pay tribute to his musical mentor Hudie Lebetter, better known as Leadbelly. He evokes the iconic performer, who both Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger called the greatest American folk singer, with Sylvie and Cotton Fields.
Not exactly how Leadbelly would have done it, but, you know, pretty cool. He then takes on what many consider to be the greatest of all American folk songs, John Henry. The classic man against machine ballad that continues to be sung and recorded into the 21st century
Just another example of how powerful Harry Belafonte could be with his voice and a single guitar. There needed to be a spiritual included in this first act and Harry chose Take my mother home—one of the handful of songs that didn’t make the cut When RCA released the CD decades later. Side 2 opens with the last song in Act 1, The Marching Saints. After a demonstration of how the traditional jazz standard would have sounded like as an English madrigal, he launches into the way the song was supposed to sound. Especially when led by bassist Norman Keenan. Keenan was known as Count Basie’s bass player.
I’m no audiophile, but I highly recommend you listen to this one on vinyl. Not only will you get the complete concert, but you will hear the full dynamic range captured on tape by just a few mics in a great hall. Act 2 is titled In the Caribbean.
Day-O or the Banana Boat song is one of four songs in this act originally recorded by Harry Belafonte on his 1956 LP, Calypso. Not only was that album responsible for starting the Calypso craze over the next several years, it was also the first long playing record to sell a million copies in America and in England. It spent 31 weeks at number 1 on the billboard chart, 58 weeks in the top ten, and 99 weeks on the U.S. charts in total. So the audience was ready that night to be in the Caribbean.
In addition to the popular Jamaica Farewell, Harry includes Man Piaba—this is what happens when young Harry asks his dad about the birds and bees
In the Caribbean also includes All My Trials
A song Harry first heard while filming Island In the Sun in the West Indies, Mama Look A Boo Boo
Come Back Liza
And Man Smart Woman Smarter
Another new trend in folk music around this time was the recording and performance of folks songs collected around the world. Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel and Harry Belafonte lead the way. Act 3 of Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall was titled, Round the World.
Israel’s Hava Nagila, Irelands Danny Boy and then, all the way to Mexico…
The next 11 minutes or so of your life will be spent engaging in a wild Carnegie Hall sing-along. The song? Matilda. Harry’s charisma and humor is on full display as he tries to get everybody, and I mean everybody, to sing his song.
Including his on stage band
Did I mention that these two concerts at Carnegie Hall were benefits for two schools for at-risk youth? Harry organized this with his Eleanor Rosevelt. The shows raised over 58,000 dollars. That’s over a half a million bucks in today’s money
He wasn’t close to being finished..
When all was said and sung, the money was raised and a near perfect performance was recorded to be enjoyed forever.
INTERVIEW: James Keelaghan
James Keelaghan was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta, Canada to parents, it turns out, were big fans of Harry Belafonte. James released Timelines, his first album of original songs in 1987 which immediately established him as an international recording artist and performer. He released a steady stream of records throughout the next two decades including collaborations with Chilean guitarist, Oscar Lopez. An avid reader of non-fiction and history, James’s songs are literate, multi-layered gems that tell stories drawn from historical and contemporary sources. He is a fabulous performer who uses every second of stage time to sing his songs, tell his stories and connect to his audience. If all that isn’t enough, in 2011 he took on the role as artistic director of the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario. Now I’ve known James since he first hit the scene in the late 1980’s. I’ve seen the concerts, heard the records, and followed his career. When I asked him to do this interview I was not expecting his choice to be Harry Belafonte Live At Carnegie Hall.
Well, okay. So why is that? You know, like my parents were huge Belafonte fans, even though my dad was Irish, my mum was English. Uh, the record was in the house in 1964—I would have been 5. Uh, and I wore that thing out. I completely wore it out. I could do every song. I'd worked out all these different moves would go with it. And I had dance moves and I also had my moves with the audience and I do all the jokes and stuff. And I, I, must've just like totally internalized that as what a performance was—and what a performance it was. And it's not until later years that I began to realize like how Important that album was. That before that album came along, the only thing that were live recordings, were comedy recordings. Generally everything else was done in a studio. And this was the first major, major, major selling album that was actually recorded live. And so, from a standpoint of recording and the history of recording, that in and of itself makes the album notable.
At this point I will allow you some time to imagine James Keelaghan as a 5, 6, 7 year old acting out and singing these songs. Got it? Good.
But, you know, in terms of its effect on me as a 5, 6, 7, 8 year old kid, actually forever. I've never, I've still, I still listened to it regularly. It's still in rotation and now I’ve infected my boys with it. The wonder of it never goes away. And it becomes better with each different age that you are because you learn to appreciate it for other things.
So as a kid, I learned to appreciate it as it was just like this incredibly fun thing to sing all these songs, you know, like Day-o and Mama Look a Booboo and, you know, even Sylvie and John Henry and all those, all those tunes, it's like to learn how to sing those. When I was 5, 6, 7 years old was, was one thing, but then also to realize that I was somehow subconsciously teaching myself the art performing— the art of what a live performance was because it was, you know, seeing me, there's always the singalong element in it. And if you've never heard the sing along 13 minute version of Matilda, It's unbelievable.
And uproariously funny.
Just in case you need a reminder…
Like me, James was amazed at the dynamic range of this performance and this recording
Well, and, and what song is it? I think it is in Mama Look A Boo boo, right, It starts with a full freaking orchestra and it's like, and it comes right down to this guitar and an upright bass and his voice.
I actually met him once, quite by chance, in an elevator in the Bessborough hotel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when I was 17. And, uh, The woman I was dating worked in the Bessborough hotel, which is this grand old Canadian Pacific hotel. If you saw pictures of it, it looks like a, it looks like a castle.
Anyway, she had access to the bell tower at the top of the building. So she was going to sneak me up there. So we got into this elevator. We're about to start going up when there's the proverbial hand— and in walk these two guys, and one of them is Harry Belafonte. He'd been performing in town and, you know, all the, all the real big performers stayed at the Bessborough, I'm sure he had like the presidential suite or something, but, you know, he walks on the elevator and I must've been like doing the the carp, you know, my mouth just going, uh, uh wow. And he looked at me and he just had this little smile on his face and he, looked at me and he said, yes, I am. And what's your name? I sort of stammered and shook his hand. And, uh, you know, then they got off. That was my, my one. and only…
you weren't tempted to tell him that you did as routine as an eight year old or anything?
No, there really wasn't time and I was just in awe of him, and still am in awe of him.
I asked James Keelaghan to talk about how the performance was recorded. He mentions the engineer by name
Bob Simpson was the guy's name, and I'm pretty sure, I'm pretty sure in the liner notes, there is actually the stage layout like where the microphones were. And there were like only five or six microphones. When you look at the cover, you can see that like in front of the ensemble, like the bass player and the two guitar players, there's two mics. There's not even a separate mic in front of the bass. He’s just micing that ambient area where the two guitars and the bass are: two mics, right? I don't know what he had on the orchestra, and then Harry Belafonte obviously has a mic.
It was Carnegie hall, which of course helps. But, still the record, as you already mentioned, there is so much dynamic quality to the performance, you know, big blasts and really intimate, vocal and guitar. And sometimes just vocal. That again, just kind of shows the artistry of the performers on that stage that night.
I sometimes imagine like who's in the audience. And I also try and imagine who's backstage, but I've never been able to find anything about who's backstage or who's in the audience.
What do you imagine though, James?
I kinda think that, uh, that there would have been like a slice of the Clancy Brothers there, probably Liam would have been there and Tommy Makem probably would've been there. You know, I'm pretty sure that Pete would have been there somewhere in the audience. You know, I, I would expect that there was of course, you know, New York being what it was at the time. But, but so those are, those are the people who are sort of his peers, you know, in the day I, I imagined them as being sprinkled through, but is there, is there like a young Bob Dylan sitting in the crowd, somewhere? Yeah, I'm now just thinking about how, where the after party was.
I would have liked to have been there for that.
There were only a few performers of color breaking through into the mainstream in 1959. Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Lena Horn. I asked James about this.
For white people, there have always been categories of, you know, dangerous black people, safe black people. Right? There was a really interesting book by David Remnick. It's called… What's it called?… It's about Muhammad Ali, it’s actually about Cassius clay before he had actually became Muhammad Ali.
And it's about the two Liston fights. And, uh, it was When We Were Kings, I think is the name of it. And it just focuses on those fights, but how much the racial debate in America took shape in white minds about the nature of Sonny Liston and the nature of Cassius clay, because white people were trapped because Sonny Liston had always been sort of portrayed as the dangerous, you know, sort of back alley brawler, and then Cassius Clay was this mouthy guy, right? And that within the white brain, it was like, ‘no matter who wins this particular fight, it's not going to be our person. It's not going to be Floyd Patterson. It's going to be one of these two guys.’ So I think that Belafonte was afforded this opportunity, not afforded this opportunity, he took the opportunity, created the opportunity to make inroads with a white communities where he could. And the whole culmination of that is that famous meeting in Bobby Kennedy's New York apartment. It happened With Belafonte and James Baldwin and Sidney Poitier and members of the freedom riders where Bobby Kennedy got pummeled. He thought he was going to walk into this room that was going to be all these people that were sympathetic to what him and John were trying to do, and that he was going to get praised for that and everything else. And it ended up going completely the other way, but ended up totally changing Bobby Kennedy's mind on what the program was going to be.
And over the next two years, that's when the Bobby Kennedy emerges and goes and sits with the Cesar Chavez, right? And then he goes and visits and examines poverty in Appalachia and in inner city America and transforms himself from this, uh, this sort of liberal guy into somebody who was really quite radical by the time he died. But a lot of it comes from that meeting. And so I've, I've also been reading a lot about that meeting actually.
James Keelaghan is great performer. He has even been known to give workshops on stage craft and the art of connecting to an audience. I asked him what modern day performers could learn from studying Harry Belafonte’s performance at Carnegie Hall.
If they took one thing only away from that album, it would be dynamics— that a song has to have peaks and valleys, that it doesn't go from A to B at the same pace, with the same intensity. When you're telling a song, you're telling a story. Even when a song is frenetic, even when a song is like, Mama Look A Boo Boo or whatever, I keep coming back to that, but it's like, it has peaks and it has valleys.
All those things are necessary in order to put across a song, in order to put across the feeling of the song and the performance of the song, and in order to keep the audience engaged in what it is that you do.
Do you think that extends across the whole. The dynamics of the setlist itself?
Yep, yep, because it is, this is a performance. It does go from here to here and it does go up and down and peaks and valleys, and there are variations in tone, there's variations in instrumentation. Sometimes it gets very thick. Sometimes it gets very thin that, you know, sometimes it's like you were saying, sometimes it's whisper. sometimes it's a roar, but the whole, the whole thing has, has a flow to it.
And that's why, you know, like it's, it's such an honest recording.. There are no bells and whistles, there are no tricks because this is the other thing. I'm pretty sure that, that’s basically just going to a two track recorder. That's going through a stereo recorder left and right— there is a little mixing to be done here.
There was only such mastering as was needed to get it onto the vinyl. So, so everything you're hearing is, is really honestly the way that it was played.
Even if you're not a fan of the music or anything else, it is just, it's a masterclass and performing.