Music takes you places.
I recently found myself in the back of a small blues bar. The kind that has those red velvet seats and old wooden tables. Each setting possessed a marble ashtray and I was using it. I ordered a glass of scotch and it was on its way. I was by myself, not necessarily in a down mood, but in the mood for a journey, something different. I was just ready to be somewhere else.
Then the record needle picked up and I realized it was just a vinyl fantasy.
This is where Harry Belafonte took me with his 1958 release “Belafonte Sings The Blues.” I had listened to some of Belafonte’s earlier material, including his calypso recordings, but this has to be one of my favorites in his catalog.
One must understand that the essence of the blues is communicating your emotions not only through words but tone and assertion. Each song on this album takes on a different mood, whether it be vulnerability, anger, contentment, or happiness. I could write all day on the nature of blues and jazz music, but one thing is for certain, Belafonte has it down pat.
He opens the album with Ray Charles’ “A Fool for You.” This song serves as a prelude for what is to come, especially when Belafonte declares “that you can cry so loud you give the blues to your neighbor next door.” His listeners are his neighbors and I’m not looking for a place to move.
Belafonte then goes into “Losing Hand” explaining how he gambled on love but was done wrong by the lady. At this point, I had taken my cigarette to the roulette table. The next song, “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” tells of the happiness he feels in a relationship. Although It moved me a little more to the bright side, let’s just say one can acquire new chips, but they don’t always last long.
I had a brief intermission (record flip) and I was then thinking about my past. “Cotton Fields” were a reality for far too many families during this recording and the years before it. He explained the struggle while also dealing with segregation. I find it interesting how Belafonte later led many civil rights causes and was a good friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s. This song expresses the strife he was fighting against.
The true gem of this record is the Billie Holliday penned, “God Bless The Child.” By this time he was just Harry and we were sitting at the table just partying in a slightly drunken pity. We just can’t rely on anybody. We realized the best way to be is to “have his own.” He sings this as if he is having a conversation with you. Through his interpretation, the words opened a new meaning through a perceived back and forth dialogue. This has to be one of the best rendition of this song ever, rivaling Miss Lady Day.
By the time I got home that night, I reeked of smoke. Yet through all the haze, clarity seemed to seep through, giving me a relaxed feeling for the time being. It’s going to be tough. I will be singing the blues again, but I now have a sense of satisfaction that life is going to be ok.
That’s what the blues does for you. Through its depression it brings hope. Belafonte’s record is one that can truly take you through that journey.