Belafonte's Musical Mission

Harry Belafonte in 2000 AP

Harry Belafonte.

For nearly a half century, the world has listened and loved that raspy voice. A rhythm and rage born in Harlem, nurtured in Jamaica. Add to it all: He was blessed with an actor's good looks and an activist's anger.

At age 74, he's still good looking, still angry, and after more than 50 years of singing and song writing, there is a series of old songs - very old songs - Belafonte wants the world to listen to for the very first time. CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

These are songs from the 17th century, a musical journey from Africa to slavery, from the blues to Gospel. It's called "The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music."


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It was 1961, 40 years ago, when Belafonte assembled the music and the musicians at Webster Hall.

He was at the height of his career as an actor and an entertainer - the first black man to win an Emmy and a Tony, and the very first artist to sell a million records with the release of his album, "Calypso." Add to all of that: a civil rights activist, standing beside Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight for equality.

He was famous. "Calypso" had made him rich. Why was he not satisfied?

"Because," answers Belafonte, "the mission that I had set for myself had been started long before popularity became a factor."

The mission was the long road to freedom - the story of a music and a people.

Recalls Belafonte, "As we began to look at what was available to us, we discovered that we had to reach further and further into the womb of black culture in this country. We went deep into rural black America, places where remnants of slavery still existed with current culture of that time. And to track that down and to find the people who could articulate that was, in itself, a daunting task. But we did it."

Thanks to a man by the name of George Marek, head of RCA Records.

Says Belafonte, "When I told him of my desire to embark on this mission for black music, he saw instantly a purpose that made sense. And although the rest of the company didn't see it from a marketing point of view, and certainly where pop culture was going at that time, it was he who said, 'We stay the course.'"

They stayed the course, working for 10 straight years. But the anthology neer made it anywhere. Partnerships with RCA Records dissolved, and "The Long Road to Freedom" sat for a long time inside an underground music vault in Pennsylvania - 10 years of work never to see the light of day.

"It was his life's work at the time," says David Belafonte, one of Harry's two children with his wife of 44 years, former dancer Julie Robinson. "And all the eggs were in that basket, and it was just hanging over us, that this thing was lost and in the abyss of the archives. It was something that was always on the radar for him, and when the opportunity presented itself - or looked like it was, you know, a glimmer of hope to resurrect it - it would be explored. And if it didn't look right, he'd pull the reins."

Year after year, Harry Belafonte pulled those reins, driven by determination. He never let go, refusing to forget the people who touched his life, men and women who gave themselves freely to the music.

Among those who participated in the project and Belafonte's comments about them:

Bessie Jones: "Bessie Jones brought to us a voice of authenticity and validation. And then to know that she could sit with a man like Leonard de Paur who was an academic and a teacher of music. A musicologist who transcribed all this and who was brilliant at notation, that the two worlds did not sit alien to one another, but very much in compatibility."

Valentine Pringle: "If I'd have been touched with Valentine Pringle's voice, I would have been the ruler of the universe."

The collection includes not only rediscovered songs, but also familiar songs performed in unfamiliar ways, including a haunting rendition of "Amazing Grace."

Explains Belafonte, "'Amazing Grace' and songs of that ilk are the ones that were sung by slaves in order to temper their passions of rebellion."

Music used like a whip?

"Music used like a whip. Walking softly while commanding - and controlling - the souls of other human beings."

After about 30 years, the day came when BMG discovered the anthology and wanted to release it.

David Belafonte says his father "was very happy about it. There's always some reservation as to, 'My God! Here we go again. Is this actually going to happen this time?' And once...we hit what I'll call the point of no return, in terms of the process, I think there was a great sense of relief."

Enter David Belafonte. He took on the resurrected project, re-mastering every song from scratch. He says, "What a great gift, that now we have the ability to bring this to life! And it was an honor. It was an honor to listen to that work and know how much it meant to my dad, and means to my dad, and just to be a part of that process."

Now the dream is reality, and many critics say it was well worth the wait. They include Gary Giddins, a music historian who writes reviews for the Village Voice.

Giddins says, "I was near tears at a couple of moments, the first time I heard some of this. Belafonte and he people he worked with have uncovered a whole treasure of songs that are so good that when you hear them, you think...'Where have they been all my life? How could these have existed, and why aren't they part of American culture?' Which they will be, from now on."

The songs are like his children, and Belafonte loves them all. But are there one or two favorites?

"At the time we were recording this work ("I'll Never Turn Back, No Mo'"), Dr. King visited us with some frequency," Belafonte recalls. "And one time, I'd heard him give a sermon, and I asked him if I could acquire that speech to fit within the frame of a piece we had at the closing of the album that I thought would be most appropriate and poetic. That moment, I think, stands out for me very strongly.

And he is proud of this work?

"Very," he replies, adding, "I'm more proud of the journey, the men and women whom I met along the way who brought their passion and their hopes to it. This is a validation, a gift from them. So I'm kind of glad that, as I sit in what I call the spring of my winter years in life, I should have heard all this before I become just a memory."


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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