Harry Belafonte: Live from the NYPL 12 October 2011

I didn’t have to wait long for the second interview. The next day was Harry Belafonte being interviewed by the Director of Public Programs at the New York Public Library, Paul Holdengräber. Holdengräber starts his interviews by asking the subject for seven words. Belafonte’s were “constantly answering questions from interviewers like you.” Belafonte’s book is My Song: A Memoir. The interview was as much about his political activism as Belafonte’s singing and acting career.

When Belafonte volunteered for the army in World War II, it was the first time he learned about the diversity of blacks. He’d never encountered blacks from other parts of the country before. While there he read books by WEB Dubois but found it difficult to get through them, especially with all the footnotes. He went to the Chicago library and gave the librarian a long list of the references from the footnotes. There was a limit to how many books any person could take out, even for the GIs. When the librarian told him she couldn’t give him all those books, Belafonte told her just to give him the books by Ibid. He then argued with the librarian because Mr. WEB Dubois would not list an author who didn’t exist. When he got back to the base and told his story he found out his mistake. He told that same story to Paul Robeson and Dr. Martin Luther King and both laughed. Belafonte laughs when he tells the story but I think he also tells it to illustrate how far he got with only a 9th grade education.

We saw piece of an interview from last year with Jay-Z. Belafonte was in the audience and Jay-Z was talking about how much Belafonte had inspired him – he had a photo of Coretta Scott King and Belafonte on his wall. How an artist can use his celebrity to influence for good. This was full circle since Belafonte was inspired by Robeson to do the same.

Belafonte studied at the New School on the GI Bill and nearby was The Royal Roost (later Birdland) where he got to see many famous jazz musicians and became friendly with them. He was doing Of Mice and Men (I think for the American Negro Theater) and a role of the Troubadour had been added – commenting on the action with Depression-era songs (Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie). Some of the musicians had seen the performance, Belafonte needed money, and so the guys suggested that he sing at the club. He had no repertoire. One was created for him and when he first got up to sing, musicians like Charlie Parker and Max Roach got up on stage and joined him. This was something he never forgot and he always would pay it forward by doing what he could to encourage and support new artists.

Belafonte worked as a super’s assistant for a while and his main job was putting out the garbage at 8pm. When he was in a play he would ask a friend to take care of the garbage. One night his friend couldn’t do it and it was too late to find a replacement. His understudy, Sidney Poitier, went on. That night there were two Broadway scouts in the American Negro Theater and they hired Poitier on the spot. The play only last two nights. But on one of those nights there was a Hollywood scout and Poitier was signed for a film. Belafonte always reminded Poitier that his whole career was based on garbage.

The first time Belafonte played Las Vegas he entered through the front door. He was told he was not allowed through the front and he could not eat in the dining room. Belafonte said he wouldn’t perform and was told he would leave Vegas in a box if he didn’t perform. Apparently Belafonte had an uncle in NYC who he called. The uncle called Cleveland, Cleveland called Vegas and Belafonte was allowed to use the front door and eat in the dining room. At the first show he came out with a big smile, “Hey! Let me entertain you!” and no one paid attention. He was furious. The manager of The Weavers was in the audience and told Belafonte that the audience was not at fault. It was his fault for not catching them. The manager rearranged his repertoire. The first song was changed to “Jerry (This Timber Got to Roll)” and Belafonte put the force of all his anger into the song and the audience sat up and took immediate notice and he had them paying attention the entire night.

Years later he saw a film with a young Miriam Makeba. She was brought to the US to sing jazz at the Village Vanguard. The audience paid her no mind. He told her not to be an imitation of Ella but to be Miriam and sing South African songs because that would give her a platform. Again, Belafonte paying forward.

Classmates at the New School were Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger, Walter Matthau, and Tony Curtis. Marlon couldn’t talk. Steiger wanted to be an opera singer. Curtis was always telling Yiddish jokes.

When people were upset that Robert F. Kennedy would be Attorney General, after having served as a lawyer for the House Un-American Activities, King told them to find RFK’s moral center and bring him to our cause. Belafonte got Marlon Brando and Charlton Heston to be co-chairs for the California delegation for the March on Washington. Belafonte has been criticized for his trips to Cuba and relationship with Castro. But he believes you can’t make change with dialogue. Grace resides in greeting the impossible and seeing the possible.

Near the end of the interview was some film from the “USA for Africa” recording session. Al Jarreau is leading the group in “The Banana Boat Song” (“Day-O”) and most everyone is laughing and singing along with Belafonte laughing along with them. Interestingly Dylan is stone-faced and it’s the black artists who are singing the loudest and having the most fun.

One of the reasons Belafonte wrote the book was so that people would know about King’s work in Africa and Latin America and with Native Americans – a story that is rarely told. It is his truth because it is his memories. Several voices telling the story can unfold the spirit.

By Carene Lydia Lopez