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Harry Belafonte's Groundbreaking Album "Calypso"
The singer, actor, and civil rights leader died today at 96.
Harry Belafonte died today at 96. He’s a vastly underrated singer; much of his ground-breaking television work wasn’t recorded and is now lost; even his civil rights work is much less well known than it should be. America is often not great at remembering its real heroes.
I wanted to re up this piece on his marvelous record Calypso from my book on the Best Greatest Albums of All Time Ever. If you haven’t heard anything but “Day-O” you are missing out.
Calypso was the first album by a single artist to sell more than a million copies, and it kicked off one of the first post-rock pop music fads. For a moment, Elvis Presley's raucous, raw yawp looked like the past, and the gentle Carribean shimmy and sway seemed like the banana boat to the future. Important artists like Sarah Vaughan and forgotten acts like the Fontana Singers had hits with covers of the titanic “Day-O.” Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders hit number 4 with “Marianne.” The Kingston Trio called themselves the Kingston Trio, and just about every folk revival act added a few calypso songs to their repertoire.
It's easy perhaps to dismiss the album as a corny and thankfully avoided road not taken, or as the last gasp of pre-Presley polite hit-making. But the truth is that Jamaican-American Belafonte's silky hip-shake roots exploration insinuated itself into pop as lastingly, if not as loudly, as Elvis' pelvic thrust.
Calypso was a blueprint for musical eclectics—the Beatles, David Byrne, Paul Simon, M.I.A.—who wanted to pick up beats and narratives from artists overseas and translate them into aesthetic innovation and commercial success at home. More specifically, he and his songwriter,back-up singer, guitarist, and collaborator Lord Burgess laid the groundwork for 80 plus years of island invasion, as every generation of pop rediscovered or re-embraced Caribbean musics and artists—reggae, dub, Grace Jones, Rihanna. When Trinidadian-American Cardi B raps about wet ass pussy in a style derived from Jamaican toasting, she's channeling Belafonte as much as Little Richard—and listening to Calypso after “WAP,” you can't help but notice that Belafonte's suave surface is coupled to a cheerful, not un-Richard-like horniness. That yodel at the start of “Dolly Dawn”—”ooooh! Look at Dolly! Pretty pretty pretty pretty Dolly!” is not exactly innocent, especially when you've got that insistent stripper grind beat under there. “Don't stop her when she got the call/Dolly done goin' to have herself a ball” is not as explicit as Cardi, but the double-entendre isn't exactly subtle either.
The thing that makes Belafonte and Burgess' record such perfect, almost platonic pop is that dialectic between earthiness and polish, a packaged authenticity that magically leaps over boundaries of distance and class. The itchy “Jack –Ass Song” features Belafonte honking and hiccuping like a donkey over an energetic pennywhistle by Jamaican Herb Levy, and even more energetic percussion; it's an immaculately calculated evocation of irrepressible quadruped snorts.
And the album's first song and smash hit “Banana Boat (Day-0)” is a call across the water, with Belafonte adding echoey production and sweet harmony chorus to a lyric about men yearning for an end to a long night of work. The measured tempo is the rhythm of weariness, while Belafonte's elastic voice lifts and carries with good humored melancholy. “Daylight come and me want go home” is about leaving the dock, but also about leaving the song; the tune is so affecting in part because it's pop explicitly demanding to be released from the high gloss boat of pop, with Belafonte cajoling it to stay even as he voices its desire to leave. Critics praise the ambivalence of Jagger or Dylan, but “Day-O,” and its brief reprise “Star-O,” is double-consciousness on wax, simultaneously ingratiating and defiant, amused at its ambivalent predicament (“a beautiful bunch of ripe banana/I see deadly black tarantula!”) and heart heavy.
The other huge hit “Jamaica Farewell” (by Burgess,of course) also plays with distance and regret; Belafonte boasts of his cosmopolitanism (“I've been from Maine to Mexico”), cosigned by the impossibly accomplished Haitian guitar of Franz Casscus, even as he sings about his love for the girl in Kingston town he has to inexplicably leave. The purity of the desire for authentic love is foiled by the need to go back to the studio to record that purity and authenticity; it's like he's mourning the need to sail away and mourn.
“Brown Skin Girl” covers similar, wide-journeying territory, with a story of American's on the island telling brown skin girls to “stay home and mind” their blue-eyed babies. Belafonte's island-tinged accent is layered over Carribean rhythms and Casscus' immaculate guitar, the profligate marriage of pop elements mirroring the interracial relationship of the lyrics. Though Belafonte is obviously aware that the person with brown skin did not stay home at all, but is sailing back from the island with multinational prodigy.
“Man Smart/Woman Smarter”'s feminist girl power message is surprisingly up-to-date. But the song which speaks most directly to a contemporary audience is “Hosanna,” whose stirring mixed male and female chorus now sounds like a defiant brief for the album itself. Pennywhistle, percussion, and a deceptively complex vocal arrangement give the song a sweeping power.
House built on a rock foundation
It will stand oh yes
Story is told thru all creation
It will stand oh yes
Hosanna, rain come wash on it
Sun come shine on it
Storm can't blow it down
This house will always be
This house will always be
It will be strong you see
Calypso was supposed to have been blown away long ago with all the novelty detritus. It's still standing, though.
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