Thursday, April 27, 2023

The King of Calypso

Some music comes in and out of your life.  And some tunes and performers remain a constant companion.

When the name Harry Belafonte comes up, I think everyone's head goes to Beetlejuice and the Banana Boat Song and Jump in the Line.  

I, instead, think back to hearing Schrodinger's Cat sing Jump in the Line a cappella on the steps of the Tower at UT.  I think of Mom coming back from a cruise to Jamaica trying to identify a tune she heard on steel drums, but not exactly sure what it was.  We all thought of Jump in the Line, repeatedly, but that didn't seem to be it.  Until years later she heard Jump in the Line and said "that's it."

I think of Jude becoming obsessed with the greatest hits of Harry Belafonte.  Hearing repeated lines of Mama Look-A Boo Boo, "my daddy can't be ugly so."  Or getting Jude to record Turn the World Around for a Mother's Day present.

I think of Belafonte's episode of The Muppet Show, which we've watched repeatedly.  I know the gags by heart now.  Including the all times when Fozzie is off beat.

Belafonte's music is a joy to hear.  It's music he feels passionate about and it shows.  It's his formative music, the songs he learned by heart from a young age and then reinterpreted through his masterful skill.  It's been wonderful to discover his broader discography over the past couple of years, as he has quickly become perhaps our family's favorite artist as a whole.

Belafonte's life is also something to admire.  Wonderful film performances in Bright Road, Carmen Jones, and The World, The Flesh, and the Devil.  A masterful film noir in Odds Against Tomorrow.   His roles were influenced by his activism, stretching the portrayal of African Americans on film, moving beyond the stereotypical roles that they had previously been sidelined to.  He was a pioneer in that regard, right alongside his close friend Sydney Poitier.  Belafonte took that same stance in politics, marrying pop culture and politics.  He was an ardent supporter and active participant in the Civil Rights Movement, even bailing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. out of Birmingham jail.   He modeled this activism after that of his mentor, Paul Robeson, and carried it with him through his life.

Harry Belafonte has left an indelible impression on my family and this world through song, through film, and through his life.  He will be greatly missed.  

Belafonte passed away on Tuesday, April 25, 2023, from congestive heart failure.  He was 96.

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