1956, Music

Calypso (1956) by Harry Belafonte

It’s so hard to know what to do with this album, ostensibly the first LP to sell a million copies. It launched a calypso fad that I’ve literally never heard of before – though I’ve heard some of the aftereffects, notably in the music of the Kingston Trio – but it’s legacy really does seem to be popularizing “Day O” and a few other songs.

I know nothing of Burgess and very little about Harry Belafonte. I have no idea if these songs are among Burgess’ best – or how much of them he actually “wrote” – and I have no idea how they compare to other calypso songs.

As for Belafonte, I know him more as a prominent figure in documentaries rather than a musician. I have no idea how close to actual contemporary calypso music his delivery here, but it is often very, very smooth, seemingly calculated to appeal to a certain sect.

The music behind him is very laid back and pleasant and vaguely tropical (in the vaguest sense, though Belafonte’s delivery feels more so). It’s no wonder this stuff became popular with the folkies – it’s really only in aesthetic that it differs from American folk music. Much like “country” is more about the attitude than the instruments (especially back then) so it appears here – calypso is about the sound of the singer (and, occasionally the backing instrumentation) more often than it is about some kind of different form with different instrumentation. (Keeping in mind this is the Americanized version of calypso.)

Given what has happened in Caribbean music in the interim, it’s really hard to place this in context. It sounds so archaic, even compared to, say ’70s reggae – much like ’50s folk music sounds like it’s from a completely different time than, say, classic rock.

So I really don’t know what to do with it. It caused a brief calypso mania, apparently. And it introduced at least one song (possibly more) into the canon. So that’s something.


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