Ian Thomson

Man smart

Man smart
American actor and singer Harry Belafonte poses next to the ocean circa 1957. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)|American actor and singer Harry Belafonte poses next to the ocean circa 1957. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
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My Song: A Memoir

Harry Belafonte, with Michael Schnayerson

Canongate, pp. 469, £

Port Antonio, in Jamaica, radiates a torrid, hothouse air. At night the inshore breeze smells faintly of bananas. Port Antonio was once Jamaica’s chief banana port, shipping out an average of three million bunches of ‘green gold’ a year. Harry Belafonte’s greatest hit, ‘The Banana Boat Song’, was sung by Port Antonio dock workers at the break of daylight when their shift was over. You know the song. The workers are tired and they want the day’s banana haul to be tallied and paid for: ‘Come, Mister Tally Man, tally me banana.’

Belafonte, an American of Jamaican heritage, understood the poverty of Caribbean life. Born in Harlem in 1927, he was sent back to rural Jamaica to live with relatives by his mother, a wise, self-contained Jamaican woman of mixed race ancestry. Jamaica was then an outpost of Britain’s sovereignty, and Belafonte’s schooling was accordingly Anglophile in bias. History meant the history of British imperial endeavour, exemplified by Mungo Park, David Livingstone and Cecil Rhodes. Little or no mention was made of Jamaican history, let alone Jamaican music, says Belafonte in his absorbing memoir, My Song.

In the 1950s, however, when Belafonte became the ‘King of Calypso’, Jamaican mento and Jamaican shuffle-beat gospel became the rage. Belafonte’s third album, Calypso, released in 1956, was the first LP to sell over a million copies. It opened with ‘The Banana Boat Song’ and continued in a vein of indigenous black folk music. For all his West Indian credentials, however, Belafonte was considered something of a fraud by music purists. He had not worked in a chain gang and neither was he a black Woody Guthrie. Swooningly handsome, he was at heart a cabaret singer or (as Belafonte puts it) ‘a moon-in-June crooner’. This memoir, a page-turner, will help to correct the image of Belafonte as a mere ‘Belaphoney’ divorced from the realities of black, pre-civil rights America.  

Like Duke Ellington before him, Belafonte was motivated always by a belief in black self-improvement. Rather than engage in a Garveyite agenda for black redemption, however, he chose to celebrate the African American experience through music. Later, he helped to finance Martin Luther King in his struggle against America’s racial divide. Belafonte did all this independent of Fifth Avenue patronage: by creating a single appreciative audience from both black and white (more often white), he was an important, even trail-blazing figure. Black celebrities such as Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson who had angrily denounced racism in 1930s and 1940s America soon found themselves out of work. Belafonte understood this. His insistence on snappy dressing and a hotel-circuit clean appearance was part of a plan to create a parallel world on a par with that of the white man.

Belafonte’s air of urbane calypso-cool helped to instil an image of racial pride in the American mind. Beneath the suave manner, however, was a gently subversive spirit, which served him well during times of ‘Jim Crow’ prejudice. Las Vegas in the early 1950s, where Belafonte often performed, was equally as prejudiced as the Deep South. In the showbiz city of champagne corks, broads and finned convertibles, Frank Sinatra held sway with the Rat Pack; under Frankie the King Rat was Sammy Davis, Jr. In Belafonte’s view, Davis was a tragic, self-demeaning figure who, distressed by his blackness, chose to play court fool to white audiences; his ‘little-black-boy routine’ looked undignified to Belafonte.

In mesmeric detail, Belafonte chronicles the Harlem of his parent’s generation, when wealthy white thrill-seekers would dance to ‘jungle’ music at the Cotton Club and bump up against the ragtime of tin-pan pianos. Duke Ellington (whom the young Belafonte occasionally saw shopping for groceries), was suspicious of Uncle Tom minstrelsy, and forged his own dignified version of the new black sound in Harlem. Belafonte’s father, a half Dutch Jewish, half black Jamaican professional cook, was a violent man about town, and often drunk. If Belafonte’s mother was increasingly unhappy in her marriage, the drinking cannot have helped. As their disenchantment deepened, Belafonte’s parents began to loose all affection in each other’s company and became, it seems, a mystery to each other.

With his parent’s marriage in tatters, Belafonte began acting classes in company with the young Marlon Brando, whowas to remain a lifelong friend. In tandem with his singing career he became a screen actor, appearing in such minor classics as Carmen Jones and Kansas City. He is now 85; this memoir is tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of an old man looking back on an extraordinary life. Daylight come and me wan’ go home.