BELAFONTE, Harry: Matilda, Matilda
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HARRY BELAFONTE Matilda, Matilda
Original 1949-1954 Recordings
When Harry Belafonte started his career in showbusiness in the late 1940s, he initially wanted tobecome an actor. Through unforeseenhappenstances, he turned to singing, and indoing so, helped trigger the folk revivalmovement of the 1950s, becoming not only itsmost successful exponent, but also a victim ofhis own success, due to his stereotyping as acalypso performer. But Belafonte was insteadone of the most versatile performers of hisgeneration and a serious folk music historian,something that most music scholars fail torecognize.
Harold George Belafonte, Jr was born on1 March 1927 in New York City. He spentmuch of his boyhood in Kingston, Jamaica; hismother sending him there to avoid the travails ofgrowing up as an African American in NewYork. Belafonte's desire for acting came as aresult of hanging around the American NegroTheater in Harlem. While studying at a NewYork dramatic workshop in the late 1940s, hebecame discouraged when he found that rolesfor African Americans were extremely limited.
To pay the bills, he performed as an intermissionsinger at the famed Royal Roost nightclub, hometo jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and MilesDavis. This turned into a twenty-weekengagement, resulting in the recording of hisfirst and only single for the club's Roost label inthe spring of 1949. The phrase 'music of thefuture' that was printed on the label proved tobe a misnomer as Belafonte never wascomfortable as a jazz singer. To him, the jazzand pop songs he sang were insincere andinsipid, and so in the middle of an engagementin Miami, he walked off the job.
In 1951, Belafonte opened a small dinercalled The Sage in Greenwich Village, using histime off to see folk singers in the Village such asPete Seeger, Big Bill Broonzy and BrownieMcGhee & Sonny Terry. The music theyperformed opened up a whole new world toBelafonte; he began to see the great poeticrichness that America had created in its regionalmusical art. Belafonte then discovered a greatsource of this music at the Library of Congressand spent many hours researching and listening.
By November, Belafonte had learned enoughtraditional songs to develop a new act as a folksinger, and was booked to perform at thelegendary Village Vanguard. The club's owner,Max Gordon, called the reaction to Belafonte 'anunexpected and instantaneous explosion', andhe played the club for an unprecedentedfourteen weeks. The success of thisengagement resulted in a recording contractwith RCA Victor the following year, beginning athree-decade long association with the label.
This disc showcases the earliest recordingsmade by Harry Belafonte during this criticalperiod in his career when he was making thetransition from jazz crooner to folk singer. Theearliest sides are Belafonte's first and onlyrecordings for the Roost label in April 1949(backed by the Machito orchestra, featuring bopsaxophonist Brew Moore), which include LeanOn Me and Recognition, the latter a Belafontecomposition whose lyrics represent hisfrustration and anger at being a black man in awhite man's world. Two other sessionsfollowed for Capitol and Jubilee, which featurethe spiritual Sometimes I Feel Like aMotherless Child and Venezuela, a WorldWar I era song learned from French sailors byJohn Jacob Niles. These two songs suggestBelafonte's first angling towards folk music, butstill performed with a pop singer's sensibility.
The real breakthrough came with his firstrecordings for RCA Victor in 1952, when hebegan performing folk songs with a spareaccompaniment in an extremely personal andemotional style. Jerry is a song of themuleskinner that was associated with folk stylistJosh White, another African American singerwho exuded personality and sex appeal.
Belafonte's versatility was apparent immediately;even the contemporary pop song ScarletRibbons comes off like a folk song inBelafonte's hands.
The first of his many calypsos was recordedat his August 1952 session for RCA. Man Smart(Woman Smarter), probably the first feministsong in popular music, was written by the greatTrinidad calypsonian Norman Span, who wentby the name King Radio. The unfaithful heroineof Matilda, Matilda! was also the product ofSpan's fertile imagination, first performed duringCarnival season in Trinidad in the 1930s (Spanwas not listed as the composer on Belafonte'smany recordings of it but was credited inBelafonte song folios).
Belafonte originally learned Suzanne as ablues song that was meant to be sung by awoman. Fascinated with its structure and lyrics,Belafonte and accompanist Millard Thomastransformed it into a lament that could beperformed by a man. Belafonte performed it inhis first motion picture role, 1953's BrightRoad, in which he played the role of a schoolprincipal. This led to his first appearance onBroadway, in the revue John MurrayAnderson's Almanac.
At his first session in 1954, Belafonterecorded the folk-styled I'm Just a CountryBoy, a song that was written by two New Yorkstage writers, Marshall Barer and Fred Brooks.
That year also saw Belafonte beginning to wrestcreative control away from RCA Victorexecutives. His first recordings for the label hadbeen produced by RCA staff producer/arrangerHugo Winterhalter, who often providedBelafonte with lush backgrounds andaccompaniments unsuited for the traditionalmaterial he had unearthed from the archives ofthe Library of Congress. But Belafonte was ableto convince A&R director Dave Kapp and labelpresident George Marek that more spareaccompaniments would result in better success.
It was quite a risk for Kapp and Marek to allowthis, at a time when RCA's biggest sellingperformer was popmeister Perry Como. Folkmusic was out of vogue, what with theblacklisting of the Weavers, the movement's topattraction of the early 1950s. But RCA not onlyallowed Belafonte to continue recording folkmusic, but gave him creative control as well.
Belafonte took three new songs from hisrepertoire to perform in John MurrayAnderson's Almanac. Described as a 'musicalharlequinade', the show also starred BillyDeWolfe, Hermione Gingold and Polly Bergen,with songs written by Broadway's Richard Adlerand Jerry Ross (Pajama Game, Damn Yankees).
The only black member of the cast, Belafontewas never photographed with his whitecastmates, which furthered his resentmentagainst the white Broadway establishment.
The one song Adler and Ross wrote forBelafonte, Acorn in the Meadow, wasdescribed by one critic as 'sentimental andsloppy', yet he received universal raves for hisperformances of the ancient calypso Hold 'EmJoe (first recorded in 1926 by Sam Manning, butat least two decades older than that) and hisown summation of America's folk novelist MarkTwain. Critic Howard Taubman reported:'When he sings \Mark Twain", he makes youfeel the weight of the Mississippi riverman'slabor as well as the struggle of the humanpersonality to dominate it.' Almanac was not ahit, but Belafonte emerged from it a star.
He soon began work on his first long-playingalbum, Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites,a stunning array of ballads, blues, and WestIndian folk songs. The well-trod blues about thesteel driving superman John Henry was given adifferent treatment as Belafonte utilizedoverdubbing to allow himself to accompany andback his own vocals, a gimmick that was usuallyoverdone in the 1950s, but in this instance, wasdone tastefully with restraint (songwriter 'PaulCampbell' was actually the arrangingpseudonym for the four Weavers: Pete Seeger,Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, and Ronnie Gilbert).
The haunting Kalenda Rock is described asa mourning song, derived from the calinda, anAfrican tradition of stick fighting during Carnivalon the French speaking islands of the Caribbean.
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