Athens, 1962: I still remember the day my parents brought home our first record player. It was so alien to me that I was unable to hear the noise emanating from it as music. Standing by the strange box with its little black disc rotating in a dizzying blur, the metal arm scratching its hard, shiny surface like a fingernail on a blackboard, I struggled to make it all out. Eventually, after many repetitions, I began to recognize the sound as a song, distinct words began to emerge, and Jamaica Farewell came into focus.
How many times I listened to that song, puzzling over the words and learning them all by heart. I felt for the man who had to keep sailing away from the place he loved, and empathized with the “lickle girl” he had to leave in Kingston Town. How sad I would be if my Daddy had to leave me like that.
Drink your coconut water (shout: coconut!)/Coca’s good for your daughter (coconut!)/Coca’s got a lot of iron (coconut!)/Make you strong like a lion (and here my father would roar like a lion himself.)
We had an EP with two Belafonte songs on each side: Day-O and I Do Adore Her on one, and Will His Love be Like His Rum and Dolly Dawn on the other. One particular line used to frighten little Sally, who was only two:
When Dolly go into a turn/Old man laugh and their eyes begin to burn.
Why did their eyes burn, she wanted to know.
Mum brought home another puzzler: this was called “Ottilie Sings Bessie.” I didn’t know who either Ottilie or Bessie were, or why one would want to sing the other. Mum liked to play one side—called, inscrutably, “St. Louis Blues”— but for me, listening to it was like going back to the beginning when nothing made any sense: all I could hear was the harsh screeching of tomcats fighting in the night. Even when I could make out some of the words, the track remained discordant and grating. (It was more than a decade later, in the United States, when I finally came to appreciate the majesty of Bessie Smith.)
Most of our other early records were Greek popular hits of the day—by Theodorakis, Tsitsanis, Kazantsidis—and I learned to sing them all. My parents used to have frequent parties when we children were sent to bed, the grown-ups broke out the records and the retsina, and everyone danced. Sally and I would peek out from our bedroom door to see our parents in lines, doing the cha-cha-cha. Later, we watched them dance the Charleston, and just before we left Greece, they were starting to do the twist. (In America, Mum complained, people didn’t have proper parties; they didn’t eat real food—raw vegetables dipped in sour cream didn’t count—and more importantly, they didn’t dance.)
In England in 1963, my Auntie Bette had a LP of Harry Belafonte live at Carnegie Hall, and we listened to it again and again. We loved Man Smart, Woman Smarter, though it wasn’t until much later that I would come to understand why that late-50s American audience went deathly quiet when Belafonte sang,
I was treating a gal independently/ She was making baby for me/The baby born, I went to see/His eyes were blue, it was not by me!
Another favorite of ours on that album was Matilda. In the chorus, Belafonte invites different parts of the audience to sing along. When he comes to “Women over 40!”, there is nothing but nervous laughter until, coaxed by the handsome Belafonte (“sing a lickle louder”), a few brave women begin to sing.
At the time, my mother was only 35, and Auntie Dorrie had just given her a new record for her birthday, an American single by a trio called Peter, Paul, and Mary. The A side was a song called Blowing in the Wind, which provided me with a new puzzle: why would “ants, sir” be blowing in the wind? (I was not to learn of the Civil Rights Movement for another five years, when, at school in India, we heard of Martin Luther King’s assassination, and the two American exchange students sobbed; or of Bob Dylan until still later, after we had immigrated to America.)
Before we left for India, we visited my Uncle Charlie’s antique shop (“junk shop,” my mother snorted) in Queen’s Crescent, Mum’s old neighborhood in North London. In a generous flourish, he gave me an old gramophone when I admired it, a heavy wooden box with a wind-up crank and massive ear trumpet, and the logo of a dog sitting in front of it, bearing the words, “His Master’s Voice.” Sadly, we had to leave it behind, but I often think of that dog, ears cocked, head inclined quizzically. What did he hear?
About five years ago, Harry Belafonte came to the Calvin Theater in Northampton and I bought tickets for my mother and myself. Although his voice was hoarse now, he was as handsome and gracious as ever, still the ambassador of all that is best in America, indulging his adoring audience with all the old favorites. When he came to “Matilda,” and called, “Women over 50!”, Mum and I both sang out, loud and clear.