My first reaction on hearing this record was– “This isn’t a folk record.” It does bear all the markings of a modern folk record. A diverse program with songs from fairly standard sources: Caribbean, English folk, sea shanties, work songs. It also has emotional and stylistic range: fun, romantic, silly, serious. But, as each track unfolded, I had the feeling there was something slightly off about the arrangements. Then it hit me. This is far more reminiscent of the Weaver’s “Goodnight Irene”, which took a basic folk ballad, sung by a quartet with guitar, and overlaid orchestral strings. This album does sound like a folk record, it just doesn’t sound like later folk records of the revival. Belafonte himself, in future records, tended to use a smaller band, guitar stand up bass, a few horns, maybe. The full orchestra on this record makes it feel sort of old and stodgy.
This makes a certain amount of sense given that this was released in 1954, psychically closer to “Goodnight Irene” than to “Tom Dooley.” It's funny how we can tend to group things forward in time. Given Belafonte's later work I might expect him to have always produced in the same vein. But, of course, he didn't.
Some thoughts about individual tracks:
“Man Piaba” is comfortable ground for Belafonte, a playful Caribbean number with tons of wordplay. His ability to adopt a patois helps sell the song in a way that later all white groups couldn’t replicate. When the Kingston Trio sang a song like this, they sounded like a lunch-time stage act outside the Tiki Room at Disneyland.
No one sings “John Henry” like Belafonte. The harmonies (I think sung by the guitarist) are so tight. And the slim musical arrangement, just an acoustic guitar doing running lines and simple picking patterns, add to the intimacy of the song. It feels like a story told around a campfire after a day of work. Historical scholarship on the enslaved (in the last 20 years or so) has highlighted how the enslaved would hold late night singing sessions as a way to recapture their time. The nights were their own, so they would stay up as long as they could and dance and sing to reclaim ownership over their bodies. [I’m thinking particularly of Slave Patrols by Sally E. Hadden] This version of John Henry feels like a particularly late night version of this. Later versions of John Henry (Belafonte's Carnegie Concert for example) would have full orchestrations that don’t match the power of this version, for me.
“The Drummer and the Cook” – if Belafonte was white, he would have been the biggest Broadway star for a generation. He can sell the hell out of some corn and drag the audience along. This song is quite possibly the stupidest piece of tripe; something an Englishman made up while he was board on boat. But Belafonte infuses so much energy and charisma into the storytelling you can’t help but smile.
“The Fox” shows what popularized folk music could have sounded like in the American Revival. Belafonte’s version is more orchestral and theatrical. It reminds me more of the state sponsored folk music of central Europe, the folk music of Wagner. But the folk revival followed the Gateway Singers' arrange of this song (from Live from the Hungy i), which itself was similar to the Weavers (without added orchestration), a quartet with banjo, guitar and stand-up bass.
“Deliah” is the sort of song that every folk singer tries to mix into the set, that changes the tempo and pulls at the heart strings. But – for most singers this is the chance for the audience to go the bar and stretch their legs. Typical arrangements lack movement or energy, so the slow love song winds up as a funeral dirge. Belafonte on the other hand infuses every syllable with longing. This is where his theatricality comes to his advantage. He acts the songs, and pulls the listener into the yearning of the narrative.
This is same kind of theatricality that marks some of the serious songs and overly dramatic and over wrought. I think it’s that disconnect that the folk revivalists keyed on when they decried Belafonte as a big faker.
This critique comes to mind with the rendition of “Lord Randal” – a song whose ironic narrative emerges from the lyrics themselves, and which doesn't need much “acting.” But Belafonte sells every line here in a way that actually distracts from the beauty of the simple song. Here the simplicity of the melody mirrors the ticking clock of the poised narrator.
On final Reflection - This is an interesting historical artifact, but there isn’t much here that Belafonte doesn’t do better later.
Label: RCA Victor– EPB-1022
Vocals: Harry Belafonte
Accompanied by (Guitar): Millar Thomas
Liner Notes: Leonard Feather
Recording Supervisor: Hugo Winterhalter