Harry Belafonte discusses jazz and folk music
BROADCAST: Jan. 6, 1955 | DURATION: 00:34:22
Singer Harry Belafonte discusses Black music including spirituals and jazz and how it has contributed to American culture.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel How do we describe our guest of this evening? I guess it's generally accepted that Harry Belafonte is certainly one of the most exciting artists in the field of entertainment today, but he's far more than that. Some might describe Belafonte when he sings [the? a?] spiritual as the young brother of Mahalia Jackson; when he sings the blues as the favorite nephew of Big Bill Broonzy; and when he sings work songs, as a very close cousin to Lead Belly. We believe that Belafonte is all these things. We're aware of him, of course, as a dynamic figure in the world of entertainment, whether it be the nightclub stage, whether it be in a film, or whether it be in theater. But Harry Belafonte, seated here, I believe, is far more than that. He's a student of a heritage, a folk heritage, and we have a program planned this evening that will just flow as it comes, and the words and the thoughts will be primarily Harry's himself. Harry, how about beginnings? Where did you get the idea for folk music itself, you as a interpreter of folk songs?
Harry Belafonte I think, Studs, that it would be very, very difficult for me to intellectualize, really, about my beginnings or my early associations with folk music. I think that my associations were far more emotional in the beginning than intellectual. I can't say that I can really pick the time when I started, I can only say that I am intellectually conscious of the time when it first became evident to me that I had a responsibility, as an artist, but my responsibility in relationship to my people and in relationship to the culture of my people far surpassing anything else, and it was with this, it was with the recognition of this responsibility that I gave my artistic life a direction, rather than my artistic life directing my personal life. I remember as a child in my early development a great denial in my background of an honest knowledge of my heritage and of the cultural contributions my people had made. I'd always felt through discrimination and through all kinds of social denials that a great force was being denied me, and I can't pick exactly when this consciousness came in, except that I found that through my early years as a teenager
Studs Terkel Perhaps then, Harry, it might come from a certain place in the country. Let's say the South, for example. I mean your own. If we choose an emotional time, rather than a time chronologically, not a calendar time but a time as far as you're concerned, a time and a place. It might well be a church, might it not?
Harry Belafonte Might very, very well be a church. As a matter of fact, I can remember very vividly the streets of Harlem and the things that I can remember experiencing in the streets of Harlem, and a lot of these things rubbed off on me and I found it necessary to pursue the sources from which many of the folk things that I heard on the streets of Harlem and saw in the streets of Harlem became a certain way for me to pursue, to find out from whence they came. So that in this pursual I wound up in the South. I wound up looking at Negro laborers on the railroad and wound up looking at Negro
Harry Belafonte Oh yes, I'd say that these things have unfolded within the past six years. Negro laborers in the sharecropping fields of the South and the thing that gave me a great feeling of strength and joy was the fact that for people who are suppressed as the Negro people are, and certainly not in this historical period suppressed as they were in the slave era, but nevertheless suppressed, that with all the things that my people have to go through, the fact that they have not gone berserk in the streets and that there haven't been that many outbreaks of violence and whatnot is really a great tribute to my people. And not because there's any cowardice, but because there's a great strength, and a great belief, and a great hope, and the optimism that we shall come out of all of this, you know, as a free people and a happy people. And I think that it expresses itself mainly in the Negro churches of the South. And I recently had the pleasure of recording with the Norman Leboeuf choir in California. We took many, many hours trying to recreate the things that I had seen and felt coming from the South. Here are a group of Negro people who congregate in a Southern environment in a Southern church and on Sunday they have an opportunity to displace and to give direction, to their great energies after feeling this oppression.
Harry Belafonte I think that this can never ever be denied. I think that a great portion of the culture, the Negro culture in America, and which is the most potent culture in America, has come from the churches. I think that in very far at least cultural things, musical things that would be considered not part of the church, are very much a part of the church.
Harry Belafonte It's a social center. It is the area in which the people meet to exchange and to communicate with one another on all levels, whether in the happy social sense or in the highly spiritual sense, whether it be a meeting to discuss and to overcome the problems in the community or anything. I think that there are many people who will not know or if they do, well good for them, but most of the leaders of the Negro people come right out of the churches and come right out of the community. I think that one of the most potent leaders that we have in this area is a woman by the name of Mahalia Jackson. And I think that if we view what she is and what she has done in her contributions to American music, we will find all forms of what is currently popular on the American scene in music coming from this area. I think that this is best displayed by not only Mahalia's great strength and dignity as an artist, but certainly the things that she has put on the market in recordings for the people to participate and to listen to, and I think a good example of this is her interpretation of "When the Saints Go Marching In" which comes out of the church and which is in, certainly within keeping of the things that are popular in American music today.
Studs Terkel Well, it's interesting you mentioning Mahalia's interpretation of "When the Saints Go Marching In" because I know a lot of people think of this as a jazz number. You know, that they think of it as a New Orleans band playing it, Louis Armstrong played, and a lot of good bands have played "When the Saints" as a marching song and a jazz song, but truly it's a spiritual to begin with.
Harry Belafonte First of all, it is a spiritual to begin with, and it reflects a period in American history when actually to go meet the saints was a far more desirable thing than to stay in the environment in which you're in and never being able to meet any saints at all but just a lot of pressure all the time.
Harry Belafonte It's a jubilee song in Mahalia's interpretation which applies to our historical period, which is the necessity for optimism, but "When the Saints" first came out it was a dirge, actually, used to in a burial setting to go and to bury someone who you loved and it was very sad, and then the interpretation returning from the funeral was one of joy because one of the people had gone to meet their maker and to live in a happier land.
Studs Terkel Of course, Harry, we're delighted to hear you say that, because Mahalia has been on this station a number of times, and the WFMT listeners are really proud of Mahalia is now living with us here in Chicago.
Studs Terkel We did indeed, and I think even though this is sort of a personal story, yet it isn't. I think when two fine artists get together and there's a great deal of enjoyment, there's a give and take in terms of what they have to say, in terms of what they have to sing, it's always a joyful meeting and always something that enriches those who are standing by and gathering in all this warmth. Now as she sang "Saints" definitely this had a sort of jazz beat. Wouldn't you describe
Studs Terkel True. This, by the way, Harry, is going to be part of you feel free to just talk, to say whatever hits you. If a song reminds you of something, or if a particular thought does, you keep on 'cause this, I know, is your idea for this evening to just speak of the contributions of the Negroes to American music and of course that would include jazz, naturally, and the spiritual and the blues, and.
Harry Belafonte Well, I tell you, Studs, when I think of Mahalia Jackson who is a Negro leader and a woman, I right away reflect on that it is significant to me that all of America, Negro and white, should have embraced a man as a legendary folk hero as one of the great, great heroes in American history, a man who certainly hasn't been recorded in history as Abraham Lincoln has been recorded, or Frederick Douglass, but a man who in many ways could mean a lot more to people than Abraham Lincoln or maybe Frederick Douglass, even, a man who as a direct result of the working life of America, a man who is a direct product of the pioneering Life of America, certainly one of the big industries in America which is the railroad, that of all the pioneer figures and of all the legendary folk figures that a Negro character in folk history should have been identified with and given such a great place in history is a man by the name of John Henry.
Studs Terkel Now I suppose the story of John Henry that is so magnificent aside from his own strength, some say there may have been a John Henry, you know, some or perhaps not by that name, but certainly there have been prototypes of John Henry.
Harry Belafonte Well, there was an extensive study done on "John Henry: Man or Myth" by the University of North Carolina, which has the Carolina Press and many years of research the study has been done, and I think that we can almost say factually that a man did live by the name of John Henry. And although the feats in this song are blown up into a kind of fantasy, the man really did exist, and the reason for blowing him up into this kind of a fantasy is like no other folk music. When people find a character who they feel should be immortalized because of what he represents as a working man to other working men, no one can ever take away this power from the people to do exactly that. And I felt compelled to record and to put on wax my song of John Henry, although since this recording I have found other ways of interpreting it that I have not yet recorded, but this I think suffice in explaining and expressing what my feelings are.
Studs Terkel Somehow Harry, you get the feeling, you get the feeling maybe John Henry didn't lose after all. I think it was Dyer-Bennet who spoke of what he felt the greatness of John Henry. See if you agree with him, Harry, or if you disagree, it's more than just the giant himself, but we knew he couldn't win the fight. He couldn't beat the machine, yet, but the greatness of the fight, it wasn't just a piddling little fight, but it was the great tragedy of a man knowing he was going to lose to the machine, yet putting up the fight to the very end, against insuperable odds, a tremendous [thing?].
Harry Belafonte Well, I tell you, you see, actually I'm not in disagreement with Dyer-Bennet at all, but I would just like to, you know, qualify on that just a bit. Rather than it being a real test of John Henry being against the machine, I think John Henry's feeling was the responsibility of the dignity of the men that were involved. The building of the Big Bend Tunnel, the C. & O. Railroad was a brutal thing, in which many men had died, in which many men were, as a matter of fact, there's one little chapter out of a book that I read called "A Folk Songs USA" which said that the heat and the dust were so powerful from the blasts inside this mountain, and trying to build this tunnel, that men and mules dropped dead like flies, and no one could take time out to bury them, so they all shoved in a big pit together. And I remember once also reading a dramatization that was once presented to me and I certainly have every intention of doing it one way or another. There was a scene when the men understood that they were having such difficulty building this tunnel that they were going to bring in a steam drill, and they had a meeting and the foreman was going to tell the group that many of the men would be laid off because of bringing in the steam drill to finish the job. There was a great silence among the crowd and John Henry got up and spoke. And he said, "I'd never want to be known as anybody opposed to progress," he says, "but this is no longer a matter of progress or not progress. My brothers, my friends, my cousins have died trying to build this tunnel, and it just kind of seems to me that nobody has the right to take away our responsibility to finish what these people have died for. Our dignity is involved in it, our integrity and everything that we believe as working men are involved, so that I ain't really opposed to the machine, I just feel that the machine can't take the place of the soul and the sweat for the many men who died to help build this tunnel, and we got to finish it, and it just ain't no two ways about it."
Studs Terkel I think what Dyer-Bennet had in mind was more of a symbolic interpretation of man and machine was the idea, yours, of course, is more of a specific one involving the situation itself as probably did take place one way or another. Of course, there's some would say John Henry might have been a longshoreman. We don't know. I mean, I guess John could have been all these things.
Harry Belafonte Well, I tell you, I'd be willing to sit down and debate until the fires of hell turned to ice about who John Henry was and what he did. There are just certain things about him that I hate to see ever taken away, you know. As a matter of fact, there are many versions of John Henry even Richard Dyer-Bennet, I once saw a version that says that John Henry was an English seaman and had come to America, you see, and had kind of led the way. But
Harry Belafonte That's the point, you see, that's what it is. I think that following the same format in terms of the things that American people and the American history has latched onto, I think that it is also somewhat significant that certainly one of the greatest, if not the greatest writer ever produced in America, a man by the name of Samuel Clemens.
Harry Belafonte Who, who had taken on as his pen name the name of Mark Twain, should have gotten his name from the source that he did, which was the portion of his life which he spent working on the Mississippi River, and in research and in some of the things that I found in the Library of Congress and through some letters and documents that I've seen, led me to develop and to record an interpretation which reflects where Samuel Clemens got his name and what he felt. And it's a matter of fact, it's from the album that I turned out called "Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites".
Harry Belafonte I would say so. There are many interpretations. For instance, as I was listening to this, I had to reflect on the fact that many things that happen in music, or many things that happen in the recording of art or recording of history in art, sometimes takes on a highly personalized interpretation which might be an emotional giving of what someone chooses to identify with in a particular historical period rather than what is actually true of the historical period. I think that, however, art being what it is, you can never interpret it as factual or non-factual in certain aspects, you see. If this were going to be given as an academic truth, then there'd be [scrape?] licenses for discussion and probably many fallacies in the interpretation. When the artist chooses to project something that he emotionally feels and emotionally identifies with as an enlargement on what the truth is
Studs Terkel Has
Harry Belafonte Which anyone can accept or not accept, but in many areas there are areas where I've found a great lacking in America in a projecting of the things that I consider great strengths and great forces in America. Like for instance, well, you take John Henry, I think that John Henry should certainly be a part of the kind of history that is on the lips and the tongues of every child
Harry Belafonte In the textbooks, you know, and I think that there should be a greater and a broader understanding of the Negro contribution to American culture. I mean in the everyday popular basis, rather than in the highly specialized sense. You take a man like Lead Belly, for instance, who spent so many of his years on the chain gang in the South. Here's a man who finally was able to come North and certainly exposed to many people and into many cultural organizations, you know, many of the universities
Harry Belafonte Very
Harry Belafonte Very limited. But those of us who were fortunate enough to hear him heard certain areas of American music and certain things that the American public would never have heard unless there was another Lead Belly, you see? So therefore in really digging and in really searching you sometimes find a little area where there's a whole new development and a whole new opening into the things that are so greatly inherent in the American history and American culture.
Studs Terkel I mean, with Lead Belly when he came up North, came all these hundreds of songs, perhaps thousands, that he had a really remarkable memory, I understand. Songs he remembered, work songs, chain gang songs, blues.
Harry Belafonte Things he remembered as a child that his mother had sung, just all kinds of things. I think that just to talk about, just the time of what I was saying before, about certain licenses and liberties that the artist can take and certainly should take, because this is what creates, this is what creation is, this is what stimulation is artistically. You take Lead Belly's "Sylvie", for instance, which was called a children's party song, or party games. He sung it as a very light airy song which his interpretation projected the fact that it was a children's game song.
Harry Belafonte That's
Harry Belafonte Well, I tell you, Lead Belly felt many things, you know, after being released out of prison and being able to come North. There are many things that Lead Belly was very bitter about, but because he felt that his freedom might be jeopardized in speaking how he really felt, he reinterpreted many, many things that he did so as not to, in his own way, feel that he was jeopardizing this freedom which he had so very late in his life.
Harry Belafonte I mean a lot of things that Lead Belly did, he did double-talk. As a matter of fact, a lot of times when people say that Lead Belly wasn't audible and you can't quite hear what he's saying, there many times when Lead Belly was singing that he was beginning to project a great bitterness and a great feeling of pain and because he was in another environment that came to this passage in a given song and would double-talk through it and change the lyric a little bit so that he wouldn't abuse this newly-found freedom.
Studs Terkel In a way, couldn't this parallel perhaps what might have been said in double-talk back in the underground railway days when a spiritual was sung, or the overseer just thought it was a spiritual, whereas the other slaves knew these were directions.
Harry Belafonte Well, I think a good example of that is certainly a religious song that's sung in many of the schools today, "Go down, Moses, 'way down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh set my people free." Well, a lot of people just think this is a casual part of American spiritual life, but really the roots of it was in the fact that Harriet Tubman, who was one of the great emancipators and worked with the Underground Railroad, this song was written as a code about her, you see? Saying when, well, like for instance when the Negroes were in the South, you know, down in Egypt land, you know, tell old Pharaoh, in other words
Harry Belafonte This, however, doesn't eliminate the fact that there are many things that he did kind of mumble through that weren't being reinterpreted, but rather the very ethnic sense of what he was doing. In this "Sylvie" for instance, because of what I had known about Lead Belly's life, I took the same song and applied it to the environment in which Lead Belly spent most of his life. And I did it recently in a concert with a show called "Three for Tonight" which met with great success
Harry Belafonte We did some of it on television, as a matter of fact. But in reinterpreting this same song, "Sylvie", I was led to refer to it, as a matter of fact, when we opened in this section of the show, I said, "It took all kinds of people to help build this great land of America. It even took men in the prisons and the prisons up in the North and from the chain gang down in the South, and you could work these men from sunup until sundown and they could never quit on you. But many times in the late evening when they were back in their cells and had time to think, they thought mostly about their womenfolk.
Harry Belafonte That's right. I tell you, I kind of find that many people who are very close to folk music are somewhat projected all the time to feeling that there should be no altering and there should be no changing in what
Harry Belafonte Purists. They consider pure folk music. Yet it is very significant that all the music that is America's have been handed down from one tradition to another, from one historical period to another. Many of the things that come from Europe have been changed. And later on in the program, I'll try to show some of these things. It is certainly the right and certainly the responsibility of the artist to assume and to make these changes if he so feels, as long as what he's projecting is within itself a truth and a kind of an interpretation which led, which leads rather to a stronger feeling. For instance, there are many things that are happening now in our historical period which I can find things in the past history to reflect, you know, the same kind of feelings, yet in our period that would have to be reinterpreted because of the different times in which we live so that the public can understand it.
Studs Terkel Harry, if I may just a moment hop on your wagon on this matter of defending a stylist. I mean, we know, and there are a good many of WFMT listeners, of course, who enjoy folk music very much, and a number of them think that if a song is changed, it's not true. So long as the artist feels that's the important thing, we know, for example, Johnny Randolph, I was about to say, well, there was a tune, Lord Randall became in West Virginia "Johnny Randolph" or "Johnny Randall." That's the whole point of it. The West Virginian guy sang it differently than the Elizabethan minstrel did.
Harry Belafonte That's
Studs Terkel A different time. So he's not dishonest. He would have been dishonest had he imitated and parroted exactly that way. It has to be adjusted and adapted to the time of a guy so long as he feels honest in his interpretation.
Harry Belafonte Well, I'll tell you. And by that same token, I also have a great dislike and a great vehemence towards anyone who would take this kind of music and butcher it and give it all the dishonest things that they give it because of the commercial returns or the commercial values.
Harry Belafonte And I'm in agreement with you. But I think that the freedom of the artist to interpret these things are very important. How many of the folk things that took place in Europe were taken out of their small little simple folk environment as single-string melodic things and given the great symphonic treatment by Beethoven or Brahms, you know? These things were developed into great themes and given a real place in history because of the interpretation given by Beethoven or by Brahms or any one of the great classical composers, but by the same token I don't consider myself by any means a Beethoven or a Brahms, but I do feel an artistic responsibility, and I do feel a certain right as long as what I bring to it is what I feel is honestly a truth and a passionate feeling for the source and for the things that it has to say. I think a good example of another such liberty is a song that I also heard for the first time with Lead Belly called "Gotta Jump Down, Turn Around, and Pick a Bale of Cotton" which in his interpretation he says, "You Gotta Jump Down, Spin Around, and Pick a Bale of Cotton," yet in other interpretations that I've heard from chain gang prisoners who sing it, sing another thing which says, "I won't jump down, spin around and pick a bale of cotton, won't jump down, turn around, and pick a bale a day," which was a real work song and which really reflected the feeling of, the reaction, you know, to what they did not want.
Harry Belafonte Yes, and his interpretation is correctly so, you know, the right interpretation, yet because of many aspects in the music, a lot of these things were used for hoedown music, with meet or square dances in the South, and their use at the gatherings or the festivities where they would have a caller and everybody would dance accordingly. Well, I took the same material that I heard Lead Belly sing and gave it the interpretation as a children's game song, you see. So whereas he had "Sylvie" as a children's game song and I made it a
Harry Belafonte Work song or a prison blues, he has this, which is a work song and I took and gave it as a children's game song, which is a direct switch to what had taken place before, and we call ours "Jump Down, Spin Around".
Harry Belafonte Yes, as a matter of fact, I can't think of anything that I've ever recorded or worked on that gave me as much pleasure as this particular song did. And it is the only record that I've ever recorded where I had to have 37 takes in order to get the right one.
Harry Belafonte Oh yeah. Oh yeah. By the same token that we referred to the liberties that you take with a song from changing, you know, from taking it from one environment and putting it in another and giving it another interpretation. There are certain songs that I have found, for instance, which were songs that have been folk songs for women, and many of them are very, very beautiful ballads and things that I've always wanted to sing, but because they were songs for women, I couldn't sing it.
Harry Belafonte Anything. And it was so much a woman's song that for me to have done it would be to assume that, you know, I could have identified with it in its context and such a song, for instance, is a song called "Every Night When the Sun Goes Down", which was a woman's song, but I felt so strongly about its lyrics and so strongly about its music that I wanted to do it, and this called for a small change in
Harry Belafonte I found this song from another folk singer, a woman in New York who no longer sings folk songs but has since retired and is raising a family. And I first heard her sing it, she wasn't very popular as a folk singer but rather when the folk singing groups that exchange with one another down in Greenwich Village in New York. And I heard it and had since found it in books, folk song books, and had heard other folksingers doing it, and I've always wanted to sing it. And the only way I could get around to doing it was to write this interpretation.
Studs Terkel "Suzanne".