There are singers and songs that make me cry every time I hear them.
This can prove to be embarrassing, because it happens when it happens, and I have absolutely no control over it. It can be in the middle of a packed concert, when I’m alone driving in my car, or mid-conversation during a crowded house party – no matter, when the muse arrives and takes over, I’m a goner.
The voice of Harry Belafonte, who died at age 96 on Tuesday, is one of those vehicles of emotional overload for me, and has been for most of my life.
Like most deep reactions that operate beyond our personal volition, this one is rooted in my childhood. My mother adored Belafonte. She played his 1959 release “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall” routinely when I was a toddler, and every year, Belafonte’s “To Wish You A Merry Christmas” was the soundtrack to our family holiday season, to the point where the songs from that album routinely pop into my head with every first snowfall of the year.
The ones that hit me the hardest and summon the waterworks without fail are “Mary’s Boy Child” and “Jehova the Lord Will Provide,” a pair of spirituals that Belafonte caressed with his elegant rasp and immaculate phrasing, and lent multiple layers of pathos through his refined emotional investment in the material.
These songs grabbed me while I was very young, and they didn’t do so because of their text – I’ve never been what might be described as “a believer,” when it comes to traditional religion. It seems to me that what Belafonte did with this material – what he did often throughout his career – transcended the songs themselves, and moved above and beyond the specific ideas the songs embodied or commented on.
The songs were simply a vehicle for the communication of the singer’s humanity. To hear Belafonte sing is to receive a mainline injection of empathy. For me, this has always been an overwhelming experience, and one that I’ve subconsciously employed as a barometer in my interpretation of all the music I’ve heard since as “good” or “not so much.”
As I grew, I learned that my mother’s love for Belafonte also transcended the music itself. She loved him for who he was and what he represented. Belafonte’s civil rights activism was presented to a very young me as a mark of nobility. From this, I made an intellectual leap that would form a bedrock belief for the rest of my life – to be a true and pure musician is a profound endeavor, but to marry that endeavor to a consistent humanitarianism is divine.
Belafonte remained an activist and a humanitarian well into his 90s. In a 2011 interview with NPR, he claimed to have inherited this dedication to fighting injustice from his mother.
“She was tenacious about her dignity not being crushed,” Belafonte said. “And one day, she said to me — she was talking about coming back from a day when she couldn’t find work. Fighting back tears, she said, ‘Don’t ever let injustice go by unchallenged.’”
Today, I’m reflecting on Belafonte’s gift. And I’m also ruminating on the gifts and responsibilities we inherit from the women who raise us.
Rest in peace, Harry. There can be no doubt that you made your mother proud.