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Musically Speaking – May 12th, 2023

May 12, 2023

The great activist, actor and singer, Harry Belafonte, recently died at age 96 (he wrote “Turn the World Around” in our Teal Hymnal).  Belafonte has been and will continue to be important in our lives.  Although he was probably most well-known as a singer and actor, he was, most importantly, an activist.  He said he was an “activist who became an artist.”

He was born in Harlem, NYC in 1927 and later lived in Jamaica from 1932 to 1940, giving him a foundation in Jamaican music.  He dropped out of high school to join the Navy during WWII.  After the war he discovered the American Negro Theater and started a lifelong friendship with actor Sidney Poitier.  (When they could only afford to purchase one ticket to a performance, one would attend the first half and the other the second!). In the 1940’s, he studied acting while he also started singing professionally.  The backup band for his first club singing was Charlie Parker (saxophone), Max Roach (drums), and Miles Davis (trumpet)—all jazz greats.

As an activist, Belafonte was mentored by Paul Robeson, the great activist and bass singer.  Robeson strongly opposed racial injustice here and western colonialism in Africa, concerns he shared with Belafonte (both were blacklisted during the McCarthy era.). Belafonte also became a lifelong confidant to Martin Luther King, Jr. (they met at the end of the bus strike in Montgomery).  In Belafonte’s words, “Paul Robeson had been my first great formative influence; you might say he gave me my backbone. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the second; he nourished my soul.”

Here are some important facts about Belafonte:

  1.  His 1956 album, Calypso, was the first LP by a single artist to sell a million copies.
  2. He won many awards and was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in 2022.
  3. You can see him in the 2018 Spike Lee film, “BlacKkKlansman.”
  4. His memoir, My Song, was published in 2011.  That same year, a documentary about his life was released, “Sing Your Song”. 
  5. Jim Henson created a Muppet rendition of “Turn the World Around” that is a MUST SEE! (here’s the link.)  Henson said it was the best part of the whole season from the early 1970’s Muppet Show.

Music at First Parish in May:

May 21st is Music Sunday!  Our choir is working very hard to create an all-music service.  Our guest musician is Francois Clemmons, aka: Officer Clemmons from Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

Charlyn Bethell
Music Director | + posts

Charlyn’s professional training has followed two paths: as a professional oboist and as a music teacher and conductor. As Music Director at First Parish, she joins these two paths of her musical life, conducting the choir, coordinating guest musicians, and performing on oboe.

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