Monday 6 April 2015

The Gospel According To Harry

Harry Belafonte to be exact.

Belafonte, born in 1928, is still going strong it seems. Back in the day (by which I mean the fifties and sixties) he was a household name, a rare Black singer who soared on the international music charts. Just my opinion of course, but his music is still fresh and vibrant even now, although some of the lyrics (in A Woman Is A Sometime Thing for example) wouldn't pass muster today. He tends to be remembered for Jamaica Farewell, The Banana Boat Song (Day-O) and Island in the Sun, but his repertoire went much deeper than that. The "king of Calypso" was hugely versatile.

But what intrigues me is the many, many biblical references in his music. Songs like:
  • Wake Up Jacob
  • My Lord What a Mornin'
  • Ezekiel (improvising on Ezekiel 1:15-22)
  • Buked and Scorned
  • Were You There When They Crucified My Lord
  • Swing Low
  • March Down To Jordan
  • Steal Away
  • Take My Mother Home (very appropriate for Easter)
  • When the Saints Go Marching In
  • Hosanna (based on Matthew 7:24-27)
  • Noah (a hilarious sermon parody)
  • In That Great Gettin' Up Mornin'
It's not as though this can simply be explained by a taste for spirituals. Biblical references abound among folk artists of that era - The Seekers, The Kingston Trio and many more. The middle years of the past century were saturated in a cultural appropriation of biblical themes and imagery. They weren't "preachin'", they were simply reaching into the rich cultural capital that then under-girded society, often to inspire much needed progress and change (perhaps no surprise that Harry Belafonte has consistently fought for civil rights and justice issues over the years and that folk music had a strong anti-establishment subversive streak).

What happened?

Today those images - well watered down and given an evangelical spin - seem to have been consigned to the ghetto of "Christian music", the abomination of guitar gripping, faux rock groups strutting their heinous Hillsong stuff on mega-church stages.

If anything is a measure of the decline of Christian influence and the advance of biblical illiteracy in general, I'd guess this would be it. 

And I find that kind of sad.


  1. No offense, Gavin, but you misspelled Chri$tian Mu$ic.

  2. I like Belafonte. I remember when there were predictions that calypso would replace rock - that rock was just a fad. I have a dislike for the musical aspect of worship because of the preoccupation that AC students had with music. Everything was music. They listened to rock almost all the time, it seemed. GTA was a singer and guitar player. And so was David. Anyone of any stature had to be in music in some way. When WCG went to contemporary worship with an emphasis on Christian pop in post-1995, many could not deal with it, including me. I especially found objectionable charismatic influences in some of the music that was gaining interest..

    I like Rob Bell of the Emergent Church but one of his classmates from Wheaton told me that he used to have an eight-piece band as a back-up to his preaching. There is an Emergent Presbyterian Church in a nearby large city and you can see their services on youtube. Heavy Metal. I think the pastor wants to break into a music career like GTA did. Not my cup of tea.

    -- Neotherm

  3. Modern "worship" music is terrible. It has little melody and totally unimaginative lyrics. Just a constant drone of "Jesus is great, he is so good, he helps me do, just what I should" and other such claptrap. It seems the lyrics are written while the author is watching TV. Pathetic. Gimme that old-time religion and some good old-time gospel along with it. I think such gospel tripe mirrors the decline in pop music.

  4. I caught a Tavis Smiley interview with Harry Belafonte on the tube a couple of months ago. Apparently Harry, as do some singers, had some problems with his voice. He had had several surgeries which were intended to restore the voice, but the technology of that day was not in any way comparable to that of today when, say, a Roger Daltry can enjoy a complete restoration. Anyway, Harry was left with the permanent rasp for which he is known, and this has contributed to his second career as an actor. When Calypso was popular, a genre known as the "Negro Spiritual" was also in vogue. I remember Belafonte's versions of "Pick a Bale of Cotton", and "There's a Hole in my Bucket"

    Now, the topic of "Praise" music. There was a time, when I was an agnostic or atheist when I hated and resented it all, because the topic annoyed me. Now, I tend to evaluate and judge it as I do music from all genres. I don't know whether this is true of everyone, but even in my favorite genres, which are rock, blues, and country, at best I like perhaps 10% of the songs that are popular at any given time. Same way when I buy an album, or CD by one of my favorite artists. It would be a rare anthology that captured my attention as a complete body of work. I end up "wearing out" a select number of tracks. This is why I've been a chronic dial surfer all my life, and why I prepare my own collages for automotive listening pleasure. The same holds true for the praise music. To me, someone phoning in a script about God or Jesus in a style mimicking their favorite rock artists just doesn't cut it. Neither do amateur karaoke artists attempting to perform the music on stage at church. But, when experienced, professional musicians perform great songs, it can be very moving. Again, my ten percent rule seems to hold true. Unfortunately for the people who listen to praise music exclusively (I'm not one of them) you can't really be a dial surfer in this genre because there are not a plethora of K-Love or Family Life Radio outlets on the FM band even in major metropolitan areas.

    Among other things, music can be somewhat of a universal language, promoting understanding amongst diverse cultures and mindsets. To the extent that the writers and artists feather any messages, pulling back from overpowering listeners with their agenda or beliefs, it can be both subtly mind-opening and enjoyable. In the case of immensely popular songs, someone has found a way of expressing something in a way that crosses barriers and strikes a common chord amongst a large cross section of humanity. Somehow, in the spirit of the zeitgeist of the times, Harry Belafonte managed to accomplish that in a way that is still enjoyable today.