For David Lammy, whose earlier event at the Hay Festival showed him as a black politician who had been there and lived the life of those deprived kids he represents, meeting Harry Belafonte was "more exciting than a general election". Belafonte – star of stage and screen, the singer of The Banana Boat Song, Civil Rights icon – appeared in a mustard jacket, bald-headed, walking with a cane. His manner was without question that of Hollywood icon, all long rambling stories about the great and the good, topped off with one-liners polished over years of use.
The unique life of Harry Belafonte
04/06/2012 by Ed Wood
How Harry Belafonte turned down JFK, was charmed by Martin Luther King and broke record sales
"No one told me this would be Woodstock with an academic identity," said Belafonte, marvelling at the size of the tented venue. Over the course of an hour, he painted a picture of a truly remarkable life. Born in poverty in Jamaica, he grew up initially in Harlem, "in a ghetto inside a ghetto", and then Jamaica to avoid his father.
His mother was the driving force of the family, a woman, he said, possessed of "cunning and enormous innate intelligence." "If you ever knew my mother, you'd understand quite easily what I've become, the good and the bad of it." She was his first line of defence, however. "My father was not a very nice person," he explained candidly. "He was a drifter. When he did show up, it was always in a state of drunkenness and violence was the norm."
Neither was the young Belafonte gifted with obvious abilities. He has dyslexia, and felt that is intelligence "appeared to be attractive but unfulfilled." As a result he was frequently punished at school and left at an early age, enlisting in the navy during the Second World War as a munitions loader in what he noticed as being a highly segregated army.
In Jamaica, "Music was always a part of our daily experience… to sustain our spirits," he said. "The only way we knew about the world was to listen to what songs said." Calypso then, was not just folk music to Belafonte growing up – it was a newsflash. "I found out early in my career to plunder my past, and the songs of the Caribbean were a passport to success – I didn't know that at the time." Later, when Belafonte began his music career in America, he said that he "studied breaking down the barrier" of narrow thinking of what was and wasn't American. Unlike the 'masters' (RCA records), the audience response to his calypso material was staggering, making Belafonte the first artist anywhere in he world to sell one million copies of an album in a year. The Banana Boat Song, in particular, was a worldwide smash. "You've never seen anything as strange as 50,0000 Japanese singing 'Day-o', he said."
It was at that time that Belafonte realised he had "a platform to inform and instruct," "Art shows life as it should be," he said. Carrying with him that experience of unfairness from the war. "We [black veterans] had expectations… I came back to America and I still couldn't vote." The options were to acquiesce or to rebel "and become a full human being".
By the late 1960s, JFK needed support from the black community and approached Belafonte, now an icon in his own right. The meeting took place in Belafonte's living room. "I told him that the very fact he was soliciting celebrity… was deeply flawed" because the interests of the black community were not being served by the powers that be. Instead the singer sent JFK to talk to Martin Luther King. He had met King "in the basement of a church," where the Civil Rights leader "revealed to me what he wanted to do". Prior to the meeting, Belafonte had been convinced of direct action as a necessary means to equality; Martin Luther King convinced him that peaceful protest was the means to success. "It was a certain moral force that was invincible."
These were only snapshots of a truly incredible life. There were also the stories of his acting career: how Paul Robeson leapfrogged Belafonte's fledgling acting career by understudying for him one night young Harry had to haul trash instead – the night scouts happened to visit and kick-started his lifetime of stardom; how he attended acting school with the likes of Marlon Brando and Walter Matthau, with work written by Betoldt Brecht. Belafonte's in a life of unique moments that could never occur again, yet he ascribed this more to happenstance than design. "My life has been filled with more coincidence than manipulation or engineering… There was always this knock at the door."
My Song by Harry Belafonte is out now, published by Canongate