As I learn more about calypso music, I dismissed Harry Belafonte as a lightweight whose greatest contributions was a whitewashed version of an old calypso song. But a wise man at Smithsonian Folkways suggested that I take another look at Belafonte, so I checked out Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, the only Harry Belafonte recording available from the EPFL. My goal was not simply to listen, but also to learn more about the man.
Apparently, Harry Belafonte is the kind of man who makes people happy, but isn't afraid to take a stand for his beliefs. While there's not a lot of blatant evidence of that mindset on this live recording from 1960, it's not difficult to find proof of the man's integrity in this concert.
The most obvious thing that Belafonte does at this show is something that's easy to overlook: he gives up the stage to other artists. Whether it's "first lady of the folk song" Odetta, then-newcomer Miriam Makeba, the lighthearted Chad Mitchell Trio, or even his own backing band, nearly half of this Belafonte concert is handed over to other artists. It takes a courageous performer to shine the spotlight on other musicians, especially when those other musicians are talented enough to outshine the main artist.
This recording doesn't contain the aggression that I found so refreshing in Lord Invader's calypso, nor does it contain the overt politics of folk artists like Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. Belafonte was hardly a lightweight, though, and I was wrong to dismiss him as such. As for Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall, it's a fun and entertaining album by some very talented musicians, and it's a good reminder that sometimes we can accomplish more by giving up the spotlight than by hogging it.
This is light folk that branches into world music, gospel, and easy listening. There is a sense of playfulness throughout the album, and even when the songs get a bit serious, there's always a quip from the stage to bring everything back into the realm of fun. The album proves that Belafonte was an excellent entertainer, and it's hard to imagine any ghosts from that Carnegie Hall audience who don't still smile at the memory of this show. With that said, this isn't for people who are seeking "serious" folk and/or calypso.
Someone spilled water all over the liner notes, rendering them nearly unreadable. Fortunately, there are enough intact pages to convey a lot of information about this performance and these songs. Some more photos would have been nice, but all in all, this is a pretty good booklet.
Listen if you like: Kingston Trio, The Weavers, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Harry Connick Jr.
If it were food, it'd be: a banana. It's light, it's healthy, it's got substance, and it gets even better when you add other things to it.