During Black Music Month Remembering “Sing Your Song,” A Film Celebrating Harry Belafonte

By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist

June 11, 2020

During Black Music Month, I decided to celebrate Harry Belafonte, because as I observe the marchers for civil rights taking to the streets, it flashed me back to a time over half a century ago, when the same thing was happening.  

In 2012, I attended the documentary film “Sing Your Song” in Pasadena, California at the Laemmle Playhouse Theater. What a treat!  For many years, Harry Belafonte has long been a favorite of mine. I was raised listening to his amazing calypso records and hearing my Aunt Doris gush about how sexy and good looking he was. What’s more, on top of being good looking and talented, he was a civil rights activist. That was back in the 1950s, when segregation, police brutality and Jim Crow was publicly alive and well. Today, as we continue the fight against cruel racism and classism, where in America, Latin and African American men and women are still being brutalized and mistreated because of the color of their skin, music has always flagged and documented our history.  We are still singing, “We Shall Over Come” all these years later.

It seems especially appropriate that Harry Belafonte’s film premiered in New York and Los Angeles a few days before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s January birthday. Harry Belafonte and Dr. King were very close friends. Belafonte was inspired by MLK’s burgeoning dream. This film shows amazing historic clips of Belafonte marching arm in arm with Dr. King and a host of other celebrities who Belafonte himself recruited. For instance, you’ll see Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett, Anthony Perkins, Shelly Winters, Sidney Portier and too many more to list here.  These Hollywood celebrities were lending their voices and star-quality to the protest marches for equal rights. 

Today, as our streets are full of multi-racial marchers protesting the untimely death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis, Minnesota police, sixty years later we are all reminded that these inequities still remain. In 2020, at both the George Floyd protest marches and at his funeral, we see celebrities once again lending their star power to stand up for justice and equality. We see name entertainers like late night host, Steven Colbert; actors Jamie Foxx, Tiffany Haddish and gold record artist, Ariana Grande; rappers, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper and Boston Celtics player, Jaylen Brown; singer, Miguel, actors Michael B. Jordan and John Cusack; comedian, Kevin Hart and many more join the marchers and mourners of George Floyd’s murder.  It’s as though history is repeating itself.

There were other challenges that spotlighted racial disparities when Belafonte was pursuing his fledgling actor and singing career. His “Sing Your Song” film explains that Belafonte had short-lived success with a 1959 television show called, “Tonight With Belafonte,” where he featured a multi-cultural cast and showcased African American talent like the great jazz singer Gloria Lynn and the extraordinary folk singer, Odetta.  During those days, an integrated television show was frowned upon. White advertisers immediately objected to the white and black cast, especially the mix of white women with black men. This was a particular sore spot for racist southerners, so ads were pulled and the show floundered.  Then there was the time when Petula Clark was filmed clutching Belafonte’s ample bicep in 1968 on her own Petula Clark television special. It’s sad to admit that fifty years ago, we had such terrible prejudice and an obvious racial divide in the United States. Clearly and unfortunately, we still see racial bias in today’s society.    

This film documentary shows how Belafonte fought for equal opportunities in the Hollywood motion picture community, on-stage in theatrical venues and worldwide.  He was put on the “Un-American blacklist” during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950’s inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy and perpetrated by FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Since 2017, we have a president who blatantly reaches back to that racist time and reuses the word ‘witch-hunt’ over and over again. These attempts to disparage civil rights advocates, who are fighting for equality, seems to continue even today.

Belafonte’s “Sing Your Song” film traces the life of this actor/singer/activist from his roots in Jamaica, to his birth in Harlem, where his Jamaican mother had relocated.  Many of the island songs Harry learned to sing would propel him to fame later in life and blossomed from music he heard and sang in his youth.  Far from the spotlight of stage and screen, he struggled to make a living, taking a janitor’s job. As a gratuity for doing good work, his employer gifted him with a ticket to the American Negro Theater. One look at those black actors entertaining a spellbound audience and Harry Belafonte was hooked. Not only did he decide to act at that very moment, he also found that singing came easy to him and before he knew it, Belafonte was busy getting gigs and pursuing a career as a jazz singer.  When he witnessed Huddie Ledbetter singing and playing his guitar at the Village Vanguard, Belafonte was totally inspired.  

Belafonte decided to explore African American folk music and to perform culturally historic island songs instead of the familiar jazz standards he had been singing. This transition from jazz to calypso/folk would garner him six gold records, including one for his extremely popular calypso song, “Day-O.” Afterall, no one was performing and recording that kind of Caribbean music in the fifties and sixties. 

When Dr. King was arrested for a minor traffic infraction in the South, he was prosecuted and sent to serve time on a chain gang as punishment. Belafonte went to Robert Kennedy and got the young politician involved. Belafonte introduced Kennedy to the terrible injustices that African Americans were facing in the 1950s and 60s. Due to his insistence, Kennedy arranged Dr. King’s release and the charges were dropped. Robert Kennedy also became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, thanks in part to the determined Mr. Belafonte. Underlying his activism, you see his talent shine in a patchwork of film clips that historically trace his amazing rise to fame in movies with Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Sidney Portier and Dianne Carroll. We watch him on the Ed Sullivan Show and enjoy him singing and dancing on the Calvalcade of Stars, when television was still black-and-white. We witness him setting up his own production company to produce and direct films for people of color. He hob-knobbed with Sammy Davis Jr., Desmond Tutu, Peter, Paul & Mary, Andrew Young, Nina Simone, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Buffy Saint-Marie and too many more to list here. It was Belafonte that came back to America from an African visit and inspired his notable friends to make a difference and save a people ravaged by poverty in their drought-stricken country. The result was the unforgettable recording of, “We Are the World.”

Always pushing the envelope and well connected, Belafonte had the ear of great people like Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela, Miriam Makeba and then Senator John F. Kennedy in his never-ending attempts to implement change. As a humanitarian, one of his endeavors was to assist gifted, but poor Africans. After visiting the continent, Belafonte established a non-profit that brought 30 or more African exchange students to America seeking educational opportunities. This popular organization actually sponsored Barack Obama’s father as part of their humanitarian project. Who could have guessed that the senior Obama would bring forth a child who would later become the forty-fourth President of the United States?

In conclusion, this journalist wanted to not only celebrate the songs and history of Harry Belafonte, but to paint a picture of the last sixty years of racial prejudice and our continuous fight to gain equality and justice for all people, no matter what race, religion or culture you represent.  Harry Belafonte’s documentary is just one example of our determination and struggle.  His songs and his effort to promote peace, love and humanity between all people lives on, as we continue to struggle for equality and justice for all in this country.  Seek out his HBO documentary “Sing Your Song” for more insight into this important contributor to Black Music.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Tags: ,

2 Responses to “During Black Music Month Remembering “Sing Your Song,” A Film Celebrating Harry Belafonte”

  1. Louis D Armmand Says:

    A very fine article DEE; I read Belafonte’s autobiography of the same title several years ago. Would love to see the film if it is available on Netflix or other source.

    Stay happy and well. Btw: my mom, Dolly, will be 102 in October 2020.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: