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Opinion: Harry Belafonte's voice will live on

Calypso singer and actor Harry Belafonte performs in concert at London's Kilburn National Ballroom on Aug. 10 1958.
Alan Meek
/
Getty Images
Calypso singer and actor Harry Belafonte performs in concert at London's Kilburn National Ballroom on Aug. 10 1958.

I spent a couple of years of my childhood living with my cousins, and the voice of Harry Belafonte. Or so it seemed. We had one side or the other of his two-record album "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall" playing before we went to school, while we raided the refrigerator after school and then before bedtime. We'd get up in the morning and sing "DAY-O!," the refrain from his famous song inspired by Jamaican banana boat workers; as a child, Harry Belafonte had gone back and forth between Kingston and Harlem.

Looking at it today, it may seem inauthentic for our Spanish-Jewish-Irish-Catholic family to belt out lines from Jamaican folk songs. But Harry Belafonte took us on a kind of world tour on that Carnegie Hall album, from Jamaica, to Ireland, the American south, the Holy Land, Mexico, Haiti and back again.

I learned both "Danny Boy" and "Hava Nagila" from listening to "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall." I told him that, the one time we met — at a concert, in Havana — and he laughed and said, "Hava Nagila means, 'Let us rejoice!' It's Jamaican in spirit!"

The album sold more than half a million copies after it was released in 1959. It stayed on the charts for over three years, and remained in production until RCA stopped pressing LPs. But I did not learn, until reading about Harry Belafonte's extraordinary life when he died this week, at the blessed age of 96, that the two nights of recordings at Carnegie Hall began as a favor to Eleanor Roosevelt, to raise money for a school serving what were then called troubled or wayward boys.

Harry Belafonte's humanitarianism was not just a part of an act. He was close to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helped organize the 1963 March on Washington, and demonstrated against apartheid in South Africa. He supported protesters and activists and in the most direct and personal ways, posting bail and helping with rent.

He told NPR in 2011 how his mother had told him, "Don't ever let injustice go unchallenged." Because of her, he said, "I was long an activist before I became an artist."

This week, I found myself going back to his Carnegie Hall album: songs from the whole of humanity, given elegant voice, graced by Harry Belafonte's gentle rasp, that seem to speak of love, and longing, and glimpses of a better world in the distance.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.