Harry Belafonte has held a unique position in American culture for the better part of half a century. Born in Harlem in 1927, his was a special American story, filled with unlikely turns and opportunities, which one imagines could not have happened in any other country, even France, for instance. America's diverse cultural context provided a platform upon which a struggling Negro American performer, of tremendous artistic potential, but few actual credentials--with an almost alarmingly impressive physical beauty, and personal charm--was able to cobble together a career as a "folk" singer-cum-crooner-cum Caribbean Calypso-cum pop musical tenor in the midst of the breakdown of Swing and the birth of cool jazz and vintage rock and roll. The terms of this fostering of talent and possibility are complex and fascinating, but none of it could ever have happened without Harry's powerful character and distinctive and poetic "rough" voice sound.
I grew up in the 1950's, and no family which had a television in those early days could have missed his appearances in that decade, performing his signature pieces on The Hit Parade and other musical variety revues. In a series of pieces which have by now become canonical, Belafonte bridged the gap between his white audience and his Jamaican roots, dominating the charts over and over. It's easy to understand the seductive attraction of these pieces--
They were lyrical, comic, touching, romantic and boisterous by turns, or sometimes all in the same song! At bottom, they're novelty tunes, but with a certain ethnic twist. Belafonte has in the decades since deprecated any special qualities in his voice or his art, offering that it was either an operation on his larynx which caused him to sing with his characteristic husky tone, or just an accident of fate that allowed him to capitalize on a musical fad by which his limited gifts could be put to their best use. There is some truth in both assertions, of course. The familiar "call" thrust was wasn't the fluid, caressing sound so popular then in mainstream torch-singing. But Belafonte was nothing less than a pop phenomenon for several years running; and it was the limited nature of the musical tradition within which he flowered, as much as anything, that led to the decline in his career, a fate that befell a number of stars who found themselves trapped within changing styles and tastes during the Forties, Fifties and Sixties.
Once his career had faded, Belafonte segued gracefully into cameo roles in movies, and, inspired by the example of Paul Robeson, became active in political and social justice causes, lending his name and words whenever racial prejudice reared its ugly head, or civil rights were under threat. Over the last two decades, he has repeatedly spoken his mind about America and its preemptive foreign policies around the world, drawing critical reaction from several quarters.
But whether or not you believe an African American singer can claim the authority to render judgments on the national or international stage, no matter how long he's been around, or how many causes he's been involved in, one must acknowledge the enormous influence he's had, not just among his African American countrymen, but among traditional liberal white constituencies. But he could never have had that kind of impact without having left the indelible impression on our wider culture he made through his magnificent singing. Those old chestnuts probably sound pretty corny to young ears in these days of crude hip-hop and fusion-y hybrids. Are they the residue of the caribbean slave culture, or early pop classic examples of later jerky reggae styles? They're not angry, or nasty, or druggy, or too loud, or too vague. They're simple and direct and broadly singing.