Harry Belafonte
A Dream Realized: Telling the History of Black Music

listenListen to Bob Edwards' interview with Harry Belafonte.

Nov. 2, 2001 -- When singer and actor Harry Belafonte was at the height of his popularity in the late 1950s and early '60s, he began a project that would take 40 years to complete.

Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte worked on the black music project for four decades.
Photos: David Banks, NPR

The king of calypso, whose Banana Boat Song catapulted him to fame, set out to create an anthology of black music in America. The recently released result: The Long Road to Freedom, consisting of 80 songs and more than 50 artists on five CDs.

"We in America know very little about the history of our nation, especially as applied to the black experience," Belafonte tells Morning Edition's Bob Edwards. "So I always felt that my mission was to use music as a way in which to impart ideas and thoughts that would awaken curiosity."

Belafonte recalls it all began in 1961 with an extraordinary effort to bring the world's greatest black musicians to a then state-of-the-art recording studio in New York.

Hear Songs From The Long Road to Freedom

listenOsie Yie - Ashanti war chant, vocalist Asafoiatse Nettey

listenKneebone Bend - prayer shout, vocalist Bessie Jones

listenPick a Bale o' Cotton - hoedown, vocalists Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

listenBoll Weevil, vocalist Harry Belafonte

The artists featured in the beginning of the collection -- like Asafoiatse Nettey, who sings Osie Yie (Ashanti war chant) -- came from places like Ghana and Nigeria. "What we tried to do was to show through the music the great diversity of the ... west coast of Africa, just at the time that slavery stepped in and interrupted all of that," Belafonte says.

"When these slaves landed in America, they were no longer permitted to speak the language of their birth," Belafonte says. "You couldn't sing; you couldn't play instruments. You were completely, completely stripped of any relationship to your culture, until you adopted fully the culture of the master. How they did learn was through the church. It wasn't until that happened that slaves began to have the capacity to speak and to converse and to sing."

The collection is divided into diverse themes: Shouts and Early Spirituals; Slave Christmas; Country Moods; Bad Men, Booze and Minstrels; and My God is a Rock. Songs featuring the famous blues duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and blues singer Joe Williams dot the set.

Harry Belafonte

"My mentor, Paul Robeson, said to me, 'Get (people) to sing your song and they'll want to know who you are.'"

For Belafonte, there's a moment of magic when Bessie Jones of the Georgia Sea Island Singers performs Kneebone Bend in the New York studio, "taking everybody's shoes off and beating on the hardwood floor and making the sounds of the slapping thighs. I think all of lower Manhattan must have been up for it. It was just so contagious and so remarkable."

Belafonte also makes a few appearances, including on Boll Weevil, recorded in 1968.

The collection is not just musical. "The first time you hear anything in English -- in the tongue of America -- it's a white preacher preaching to the slave mass the rules of the slave catechism," Belafonte says.

Belafonte enlisted one of the most famous American black voices to "bring closure to the work."

"You have the album closing with another Christian text, this time with a black preacher, Martin Luther King, speaking to the long road to freedom and the struggle and importance of that journey."

Other Resources

Official Web site for the Long Road to Freedom, An Anthology of Black Music

Harry Belafonte, a Site of Sites

HarryB, a fan site

Harry Belafonte and Friends, featuring discography and lyrics