American actor and singer Harry Belafonte poses next to the ocean circa 1957. Source: (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Harry Belafonte, one of the most well-known Jamaican-American pop singers, is closely associated with his signature song, “The Banana Boat Song.” The catchy Calypso tune shot to number five on the Billboard Chart in 1957, but more importantly, it introduced Americans to the rich and vibrant culture of the Caribbean and sparked the Calypso music craze.
Belafonte Embraced His Island Heritage
Although Harry Belafonte was born in Harlem, his parents were born Caribbean islanders. His father was from French-influenced Martinique and his mother was Jamaican. When he was only eight years old, he left the U.S. to live with his mother when she returned to her native Jamaica. Growing up there, he learned to appreciate the hard work and optimism of the island people.
Banana trade was vital to the Jamaican economy in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Source: (repeatingislands.com)
“The Banana Boat Song” was Originally a Jamaican Work Song
A traditional work song, “The Banana Boat Song” most likely originated around the turn of the twentieth century when banana trade in Jamaica increased. It was sung by workers who loaded shipping vessels with bananas down at the docks. The dockworkers typically worked at night to avoid the harsh heat of the day. When daylight arrived, they knew the boss would come to tally up the loads so they could go home. The tune had a ‘response’ chorus, meaning the workers were supposed to chime in with a response to the singer’s statements. Like most work songs, the lyrics of “The Banana Boat Song” often changed or were altered to fit the situation.
Edric Connor of Edric Conner and the Caribbeans recorded "The Banana Boat Song" before Belafonte. Source: (compvid101.blogspot.com)
The Song was Recorded by Others Before Belafonte
The first recording of “The Banana Boat Song” was made by Edric Connor and the Caribbeans, a group based out of Trinidad, in 1952. A few years later, it was covered by Louise Bennett.
The Lyrics were Rewritten for Belafonte in 1955
Harry Belafonte was set to appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955. For this appearance, songwriters Lord Burgess and William Attaway re-worked the lyrics of “The Banana Boat Song.” The audience loved the catchy, upbeat tune. Belafonte recorded it for his 1956 album, Calypso.
Jamaica in the 1950s. Source: (picclick.com)
Belafonte was Proud of the Impact the Song Had
Belafonte once gave an interview in which he stated that he was proud that “The Banana Boat Song” helped to change the views that most Americans had about people living in the Caribbean. In the fifties, the image that people often had about Jamaicans was that they were lazy, rum-sipping, bums. Belafonte’s tune cast Jamaicans in a different light. Here, he showed workers toiling away all night, earning low wages, on banana plantations that were owned by rich landlords.
“The Banana Boat Song” Ushered in the Calypso Craze
Following the release of “The Banana Boat Song,” the entertainment industry in the U.S. jumped on the calypso bandwagon. For a brief time, calypso music was more popular than pop music and nearly every major singer released a calypso-inspired tune. The Andrews Sisters released “Rum and Coca-Cola,” Perry Como had “Pa-Paya Mama,” and Georgia Gibbs sang “Somebody Bad Stole De Wedding Bell.” Variety show numbers and nightclub acts all featured an island sound. But Belafonte had something none of the other singers had…a true, authentic Jamaican heritage.
The Calypso Craze was too Much for Belafonte
The commercialism of the Calypso Craze that he helped to kick off became too frustrating for Belafonte. Although “The Banana Boat Song” would remain his signature song, the crooner branched out into other musical genres. The Calypso Craze proved to be a flash in the pan but Belafonte was able to stay at the top of his career by diversifying his music. Later in his career, he did return to his Jamaican roots and released more island-inspired music, but he never allowed himself to be pigeon-holed into one musical genre.