Getting in touch with Harry Belafonte

2012-08-01 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

My Song

Harry Belafonte

Canongate

HARRY Belafonte is perhaps best known for his Banana Boat Song, with its signature lyric “Day-O”, which I hated the first time I heard it as a teen. When our books editor, Margaret von Klemperer, dropped a copy of Belafonte’s autobiography on my desk. All I could hear was “Day-o, day-o, daylight come and me wan’ go home”.

But the book, titled My Song, is a fascinating read about this extraordinary being who dedicated his life to both the American civil rights movement and entertainment. He actually used his fame to raise money for the fight against injustices at the time.

He opens the book with a thrilling account of his 1964 trip to Greenwood, Mississippi, accompanied by his friend Sidney Poitier, with a satchel holding $70 000 in cash to support Freedom Summer workers in the wake of the slayings of their colleagues, Michael Schwerner, John Chaney and Andrew Goodman. After being chased at night by the Ku Klux Klan, the two were received warmly at the Elks Hall, filled with hundreds of civil-rights volunteers.

Some of his other escapades include planning strategies with Martin Luther King Jr, funding the young rebels at the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Council, acting as a liaison to the Kennedy administration and recruiting a celebrity-studded line-up for a march on Washington.

About who he is, he says: “I wasn’t an artist who’d become an activist, I was an activist who’d become an artist.”

Some would claim that his successes in the fifties preceded and rivalled those of Elvis Presley, and he has this to say about his stage presence: “It was an actor’s performance ... I was good as a singer, but I wasn’t the best ... I’d had to rely on my acting, and in the end, I could make a case that I was the greatest actor in the world: I’d convinced everyone I could sing.”

This is an honest book, which becomes somewhat disjointed and erratic from the middle to the end, where the stories overlap with irritating frequency. That really tests one’s patience.

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