- Paul Robeson once told Harry Belafonte to "get them to sing your song." That advice became his life's mission.
Forty-five years ago, Belafonte released an album titled Calypso, containing such songs as "Jamaica Farewell" and "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," that would become the first by a single artist to sell more than a million copies. During the 1950s and '60s, he was among the most ubiquitous cultural figures in America: a Tony Award-winner, an Emmy Award-winner, a chart-topper, a film star, an activist and civil-rights leader seen in the constant company of his close friend and confidant, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte, wrote Look magazine in 1957, "is the first Negro matinee idol in our entertainment history." As such, he was accorded a modicum of power, which he used in the '50s to convince RCA Records chief George Marek to allow him to record an anthology of black music that would encompass everything from African chants to slave spirituals to chain-gang songs to minstrel-show compositions.
With the assistance of Marek and conductor-arranger-historian Leonard De Paur, Belafonte would spend a decade, from 1961 to 1971, holed up at Webster Hall in New York City recording five albums' worth of material with Count Basie's vocalist Joe Williams, bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, jazz-pop singer Gloria Lynne, spiritual and slave-song practitioner Bessie Jones and a choir of dozens. The anthology was to have been released in the early 1970s; it was to have been a testament to struggle and a document of empowerment.
"The ultimate truth of this collection," Belafonte says now, some four decades after the project's genesis, "is about a people's struggle for freedom and for rights and for expression." His voice is a blend of harsh and smooth--sandpaper against silk.
But business stood in the way of such ambition: When a longstanding, record-club distribution deal between RCA and Reader's Digest collapsed in acrimony in the early '70s, the project, then titled New World A' Comin': An Anthology of Black Music, was banished to the vaults, where it sat for nearly three decades--unloved, almost forgotten. RCA, which is now owned by worldwide conglomerate BMG, had little interest in releasing such an enormous collection of esoteric music, and over time, the label became so decentralized the right hand had no idea what the right arm was doing. Only Belafonte, who obtained ownership of the anthology in the late 1970s, knew of its existence, and he was powerless to procure its release. "There was still this resistance," he says. "It was, 'Where do we put it? How do we market it? Who's interested in this? It's not Top Ten or MTV.' There was more of that around than not."
Only now, some 40 years after its inception, is the collection seeing release: On September 11, Buddha Records, under the auspices of BMG, will ship The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, which contains five discs (just as Belafonte intended), a luxurious 140-page hardback book detailing the music and musicians and a DVD documenting the events leading to the boxed set's release. It's an astonishing document when gulped down in one sitting, a time-travel narrative that begins with African chants and ballads, boards the slave ships, disembarks in the cotton fields and battlefields, moves into the church and the minstrel shows and ends just before King's March on Washington. It reveals, as Belafonte insists, "a musical history of America's Africans."
Still, it's almost unfathomable that such a remarkable piece of work would sit on the shelves for so long. Had it not been for perseverance and a little luck, Long Road to Freedom might never have been released at all. Belafonte says he thought of just donating it to the Smithsonian, so scholars and historians might one day stumble across it.
"It takes a lot of work to lose something like this," Belafonte says, his voice collapsing into harsh laughter. He mentions that RCA considered releasing it in a condensed form, which "was like telling me, 'You can only have one half of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.' Excuse the arrogance in the metaphor, but when those ideas were suggested, I said, 'No, it must stand as a whole.'
"But when so much around you is adversarial, the tree of truth does not always yield what it should at harvest time. When I saw a lot of people getting lost and giving up on what we were trying to do, you begin to lose a sense of purpose. Maybe it's not a sense of purpose, but you begin to wonder, 'Can it be done?' It was left to destiny to interpret what the value of the work is. I don't often rely on divine intervention. Martin King was one of my best friends, and he constantly admonished me for not having more belief in divine intervention. I said, 'It's not that I don't believe in it, Martin, it's just that I have no expectations.'"
It was less divine intervention than it was the resolve of one man: Alex Miller, who oversees Buddha Records, BMG's reissue imprint. When the 44-year-old Miller came to BMG a few years ago, one of his first duties was to go through the label's expansive archives to find recordings worth reissuing. (Among the first of Buddha's reissues, in 1999, were out-of-print or previously unreleased recordings by such diverse artists as Frank Sinatra, Fats Waller, Waylon Jennings and Captain Beefheart.) BMG's archives, some million or so recordings, are kept in a computer known as Recording Information Storage System, which stores titles without prejudice--meaning, the computer has no way of knowing what's important and what's dross. It was left to the label's archivists to rescue the back catalog, which they did by typing in such keywords as "hillbilly," "race records" and "Negro"--politically incorrect terms, Miller acknowledges, but these are vestiges of politically incorrect times. When "Negro" was fed into the computer in August 1998, it came up with a single entry: Anthology of Negro Folk Music.
"Three years later, to the month, and just thinking about it, the hairs still raise up on my arms," Miller says. "I was like, 'What in the world is this?' There was no additional information, so then we searched the database using the keyword 'anthology,' and 250 reels of tape showed up...Then we called up a few tapes and were just completely blown away. From my perspective, there were some things I find to be phenomenal that a major company like RCA would have recorded. Indigenous African music? Who's investing in that?" Miller burned some CDs, listened to them during his 40-minute subway ride from his Manhattan office to his home and realized he had discovered something "significant," at the very least. He got off the subway crying.
But he still had no idea what the anthology was or who proposed it. He sought out Chick Crumpacker, the man who helped bring Elvis Presley to RCA and one of the few veterans still working at the label. Crumpacker said, yeah, he might have something in the basement that could explain what the anthology was, or at least what it was meant to be. He returned with a 30-page document written by Marek, which turned out to be, as Miller says, the Rosetta Stone: It detailed Belafonte's involvement (he also sings on a number of songs), the amount of research that went into the project in the 1950s (much, at the Library of Congress) and laid out with precision the chronological order in which the anthology was to be presented. All Miller and the Buddha staff had to do was go through the tapes to find the original multitrack recordings, remaster them and package them for release. With Belafonte's permission--and blessing, of course. After so many years of broken promises and heartache--De Paur and Marek are both dead, unable to celebrate the collection's release--Belafonte was delighted to give it.
In the 1960s, Belafonte recorded albums' worth of material similar to what's found on Long Road to Freedom; after Calypso came Swing Dat Hammer (chain-gang songs), My Lord What a Mornin' (spirituals) and The Midnight Special (folk music, featuring an unknown Bob Dylan on harmonica). During the recording of what would become Long Road to Freedom, Belafonte thought only that the collection was the inevitable extension of his mission, which was to entertain and educate. It would fill the black audience with pride; it would make the white audience reflect upon a shameful legacy. Now, even as Belafonte ponders making his own musical autobiography, he considers Long Road to Freedom as his last stand--the most important song of a most important career. He hates the word but uses it anyway: On the long road home, at long last there is closure.
"I'm in the spring of my winter years, and the seasons look like they're gonna go by pretty fast," he says. "Without being maudlin or concerned about that, I really look at each day as an opportunity to do something of value. I don't have much fat here. It's all lean meat. A mentor of mine was a man by the name of Paul Robeson, and he meant a lot to me. He once gave me an instruction and a thought that was indelible for me. He said, 'Harry, get them to sing your song, and they will want to know who you are.' That idea became central to my whole understanding of art and culture and what the artist could do.
"The purpose of art is not just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be. But only if you know life as it is and as it has been can you dare to dream of what could be. In that little package of thought sat in me what's central to this work: Get them to sing your song. Get America to know how diverse it really is. Get it to know what levels of expression have been in our past that's filled with such resonance and such richness. If you do that, America will be unable to deny it. Let it wash over you, because it will cleanse you, and it will lift you to places where you can see the better part of yourself."