About this Recording
8.120799 - BELAFONTE, Harry: Matilda, Matilda (1949-1954)

HARRY BELAFONTE Matilda, Matilda
Original 1949-1954 Recordings

When Harry Belafonte started his career in show business in the late 1940s, he initially wanted to become an actor. Through unforeseen happenstances, he turned to singing, and in doing so, helped trigger the folk revival movement of the 1950s, becoming not only its most successful exponent, but also a victim of his own success, due to his stereotyping as a calypso performer. But Belafonte was instead one of the most versatile performers of his generation and a serious folk music historian, something that most music scholars fail to recognize.

Harold George Belafonte, Jr was born on 1 March 1927 in New York City. He spent much of his boyhood in Kingston, Jamaica; his mother sending him there to avoid the travails of growing up as an African American in New York. Belafonte’s desire for acting came as a result of hanging around the American Negro Theater in Harlem. While studying at a New York dramatic workshop in the late 1940s, he became discouraged when he found that roles for African Americans were extremely limited. To pay the bills, he performed as an intermission singer at the famed Royal Roost nightclub, home to jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. This turned into a twenty-week engagement, resulting in the recording of his first and only single for the club’s Roost label in the spring of 1949. The phrase ‘music of the future’ that was printed on the label proved to be a misnomer as Belafonte never was comfortable as a jazz singer. To him, the jazz and pop songs he sang were insincere and insipid, and so in the middle of an engagement in Miami, he walked off the job.

In 1951, Belafonte opened a small diner called The Sage in Greenwich Village, using his time off to see folk singers in the Village such as Pete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy and Brownie McGhee & Sonny Terry. The music they performed opened up a whole new world to Belafonte; he began to see the great poetic richness that America had created in its regional musical art. Belafonte then discovered a great source of this music at the Library of Congress and spent many hours researching and listening.

By November, Belafonte had learned enough traditional songs to develop a new act as a folk singer, and was booked to perform at the legendary Village Vanguard. The club’s owner, Max Gordon, called the reaction to Belafonte ‘an unexpected and instantaneous explosion’, and he played the club for an unprecedented fourteen weeks. The success of this engagement resulted in a recording contract with RCA Victor the following year, beginning a three-decade long association with the label.

This disc showcases the earliest recordings made by Harry Belafonte during this critical period in his career when he was making the transition from jazz crooner to folk singer. The earliest sides are Belafonte’s first and only recordings for the Roost label in April 1949 (backed by the Machito orchestra, featuring bop saxophonist Brew Moore), which include Lean On Me and Recognition, the latter a Belafonte composition whose lyrics represent his frustration and anger at being a black man in a white man’s world. Two other sessions followed for Capitol and Jubilee, which feature the spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child and Venezuela, a World War I era song learned from French sailors by John Jacob Niles. These two songs suggest Belafonte’s first angling towards folk music, but still performed with a pop singer’s sensibility.

The real breakthrough came with his first recordings for RCA Victor in 1952, when he began performing folk songs with a spare accompaniment in an extremely personal and emotional style. Jerry is a song of the muleskinner that was associated with folk stylist Josh White, another African American singer who exuded personality and sex appeal. Belafonte’s versatility was apparent immediately; even the contemporary pop song Scarlet Ribbons comes off like a folk song in Belafonte’s hands.

The first of his many calypsos was recorded at his August 1952 session for RCA. Man Smart (Woman Smarter), probably the first feminist song in popular music, was written by the great Trinidad calypsonian Norman Span, who went by the name King Radio. The unfaithful heroine of Matilda, Matilda! was also the product of Span’s fertile imagination, first performed during Carnival season in Trinidad in the 1930s (Span was not listed as the composer on Belafonte’s many recordings of it but was credited in Belafonte song folios).

Belafonte originally learned Suzanne as a blues song that was meant to be sung by a woman. Fascinated with its structure and lyrics, Belafonte and accompanist Millard Thomas transformed it into a lament that could be performed by a man. Belafonte performed it in his first motion picture role, 1953’s Bright Road, in which he played the role of a school principal. This led to his first appearance on Broadway, in the revue John Murray Anderson’s Almanac.

At his first session in 1954, Belafonte recorded the folk-styled I’m Just a Country Boy, a song that was written by two New York stage writers, Marshall Barer and Fred Brooks. That year also saw Belafonte beginning to wrest creative control away from RCA Victor executives. His first recordings for the label had been produced by RCA staff producer/arranger Hugo Winterhalter, who often provided Belafonte with lush backgrounds and accompaniments unsuited for the traditional material he had unearthed from the archives of the Library of Congress. But Belafonte was able to convince A&R director Dave Kapp and label president George Marek that more spare accompaniments would result in better success. It was quite a risk for Kapp and Marek to allow this, at a time when RCA’s biggest selling performer was popmeister Perry Como. Folk music was out of vogue, what with the blacklisting of the Weavers, the movement’s top attraction of the early 1950s. But RCA not only allowed Belafonte to continue recording folk music, but gave him creative control as well.

Belafonte took three new songs from his repertoire to perform in John Murray Anderson’s Almanac. Described as a ‘musical harlequinade’, the show also starred Billy DeWolfe, Hermione Gingold and Polly Bergen, with songs written by Broadway’s Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (Pajama Game, Damn Yankees). The only black member of the cast, Belafonte was never photographed with his white castmates, which furthered his resentment against the white Broadway establishment.

The one song Adler and Ross wrote for Belafonte, Acorn in the Meadow, was described by one critic as ‘sentimental and sloppy’, yet he received universal raves for his performances of the ancient calypso Hold ‘Em Joe (first recorded in 1926 by Sam Manning, but at least two decades older than that) and his own summation of America’s folk novelist Mark Twain. Critic Howard Taubman reported: ‘When he sings “Mark Twain”, he makes you feel the weight of the Mississippi riverman’s labor as well as the struggle of the human personality to dominate it.’ Almanac was not a hit, but Belafonte emerged from it a star.

He soon began work on his first long-playing album, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites, a stunning array of ballads, blues, and West Indian folk songs. The well-trod blues about the steel driving superman John Henry was given a different treatment as Belafonte utilized overdubbing to allow himself to accompany and back his own vocals, a gimmick that was usually overdone in the 1950s, but in this instance, was done tastefully with restraint (songwriter ‘Paul Campbell’ was actually the arranging pseudonym for the four Weavers: Pete Seeger, Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert).

The haunting Kalenda Rock is described as a mourning song, derived from the calinda, an African tradition of stick fighting during Carnival on the French speaking islands of the Caribbean. The activity, known as cannes brûlées (burnt canes), had its origins during slavery. Eventually spelled kalenda, it came to define the songs and other performances accompanying the fighting, which could turn deadly.

The Fox is a 16th century fox-hunting song from Britain that Belafonte learned when he was a boy and re-learned when he heard Burl Ives sing it. Belafonte updated it with an appropriate calypso beat. Delia was a contemporary love song written by Fred Brooks and Lester Judson, but again Belafonte gives it a convincing folkoriented delivery.

The Drummer and the Cook is a sea shanty that Belafonte researched while studying folk styles at the Library of Congress (his first single for RCA Victor in 1952 was another shanty entitled “A-Rovin’”). Tol’ My Captain is an African American work song popularized by Josh White on his landmark 1940 album of chain gang songs. Our final selection is Man Piaba, an original calypso Belafonte and then-manager Jack Rollins wrote poking fun at parents’ universal dilemma of explaining the birds and the bees to impressionable youngsters.

Harry Belafonte’s LP debut was the first in a series of groundbreaking albums examining the roots of folk music styles from around the world. His third album, recorded a little more than a year later, focused on music of the West Indies. Entitled Calypso, it would result in Belafonte being typecast as a calypso artist, a label he has tried to shake ever since. But his early work shows Belafonte beginning his career as a budding and tireless student of folk music from many walks of life. He was, in essence, America’s most successful musical folklorist.

Cary Ginell – a winner of the 2004 ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism

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