Did you know that, on one of his earliest gigs in New York City, circa 1961, Bob Dylan played harmonica on Harry Belafonte’s recording of Leadbelly’s folk blues “The Midnight Special”? I think I read that in Howard Sounes’ 2001 biography of Dylan, “Down the Highway.” Dylan, the upstart folk singer in a hurry, was impatient with Belafonte’s perfectionism in the studio — and I imagine the younger singer, who idolized Woody Guthrie, may have been skeptical of the star entertainer’s authenticity as a purveyor of folk music. But I also imagine that recording session as an unconscious, unplanned passing of the torch from one generation to the next, with more continuity than meets the eye.
To some folk purists, Belafonte is about as musically important as Liberace — a friend of mine actually made this comparison — a product of pop minstrelsy, glamour and showbiz marketing. Belafonte was physically beautiful in a way few men are. He had a catlike grace and a dreamily flexible voice that were captivating if you were looking for entertainment and didn’t know what “authenticity” meant. As a 9- and 10-year-old in the mid-1950s, Belafonte’s show at the Greek Theater in LA was for me the most exciting event of the summer. In my early pantheon of culture heroes and role models he preceded even Willie Mays.
Thanks to his smoothly charismatic moves and precisely syncopated articulation, I was quickly hooked on the songs he sang, all of them new to me. (A lot of his best material was original, in collaboration with William Attaway, Irving Burgie and Millard Thomas.) And hearing him live, outdoors on a warm night, was magnitudes different from whatever pop hits I heard on the car radio or on the clock radio I went to sleep by. Live music by a great performer can be a transcendent experience, and Belafonte made a powerful impression on me, not least because he introduced me — and millions of others — to music I would never (or not for many more years) have heard otherwise. His repertory was my Intro to World Music, the gateway to my lifelong love and appreciation for a great range of musical genres and traditions.
For a while there, in 1956 and ’57, when his “Calypso” album was the first LP to sell more than a million records, Belafonte was (as Dylan would strive to be) “bigger than Elvis,” more popular than Sinatra, playing to sold-out stadiums. In a weird way, like the bourgeois upstairs to its working-class downstairs, he accidentally ushered in the folk revival of the ’60s that would displace him in our cultural consciousness. His arrangements were much too polished to match the rough gravity of the folk, blues, gospel, Caribbean and international originals he transformed, but they eventually sent me, as an ignorant listener, in search of the sources of those sounds. It was the beginning of my musical education. So the connection I feel with him is almost primal, beyond my subsequent admiration for his political work, which was as deep and sustained and exemplary as anyone’s.
I last saw him perform about 20 years ago at Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa. In his mid-70s, he was still handsome and charming, and the sold-out house full of borderline and full-blown geezers and geezerettes sang along on cue to “Matilda” as kitschily as ever. I wondered then why he was taking his show on the road again. Was he belatedly promoting his magnum opus, the 2001 six-disc boxed Anthology of Black Music, “The Long Road to Freedom,” whose release unfortunately coincided with the 9/11 attacks? In the course of that concert he inserted subtle pitches for peace and justice, and for art as the currency of human unity. So, as always, he was using his skills as an entertainer to promote a larger social, cultural and political agenda.
Belafonte was a major force in music, in politics and in his embodiment of a truly multicultural artistic ethos. As someone who captured the heart of a young boy at a formative moment, he remains for me a source of inspiration.
Stephen Kessler’s column appears on Saturdays.