“I would look up, and laugh, and love, and lift.” ~ Howard A. Walter.
I want to say that my relationship with music began around the time I moved to Jamaica (which would be appropriate, though possibly not accurate). My early days in Jamaica would usually end in music, since a television was not a part of our household for many years. My parents had packed up all of their albums and their record player when we moved, so one or other of them would choose the genre and music would drift through the house.
The move was probably the easiest for me – I just went along for the ride, as most kids do. At almost eight, it was an excellent adventure, though parts of being transplanted from a city in the grey northwest of the UK to a tropical island were a little dislocating. I went from watching shadows chase around my bedroom at night, as cars drove past the house at all hours, to the countryside, where strange little insects lit up the bushes (fireflies or ‘peeny wallies’ as the are known in Jamaica). Not to mention the calling of cicadas, frogs, and who knows what else that competed musically with my parents’ playlist.
Along with a wide choice of albums (musicals, comic opera, jazz, Welsh male voice choirs, classical, movie soundtracks, Shirley Bassey, you name it) soon were added some with a Caribbean flavor, like the music from the Dr. No movie (set on the North Coast of Jamaica), along with other calypso artists like The Merry Men (‘you sweeten me, girl, yes you sweeten me!’ I am not sure when it was that Harry Belafonte joined the pack, but who could resist that cool voice, those ballads.
The Banana Boat song is, of course, one of his classics, in fact one of my coworkers uses it as his alarm! And the movie Beetlejuice definitely plugged it into a few generations of moviegoers heads. But it also captured the life of the simple man, one who labored hard to earn a few dollars (or pounds in those days). It reminds me a lot of that other great poem that described the pride of the simple Banana man (written by Evan Jones, a Jamaican poet) defending his appearance when a tourist looked down on him, supposing him to be a beggar. He was a farmer, dressed in his work clothes, and proudly declared ‘Praise God and m’big right hand, I will live and die a Banana man!’
My mother had a poster of the poem hung on the wall of her study in their home in Wales. The backdrop to the poster was a photo of a pair of hard, calloused hands, the hands of a farmer who worked the field daily. She said it reminded her of my father-in-law, another simple but proud man whose hands and sweat and spirit provided for his family and many others. Like many of his generation, he had strong values, and firm convictions, and lived by them. In his district they called him ‘Radio’ (one of his nicknames), because they said they could hear him before they saw him. In his older years he would sit on his verandah and call to the children as they walked up the hill to school: ‘Mi happy-oiii!’ he would sing out. ‘Mi happy-oiii!’ they would respond.
I cannot do justice to the life of Harry Belafonte in a few words, for he was far from a simple man. He wore many hats and broke many barriers. He saw his career as an entertainer during the struggle for civil rights threatened by the politics of the day. Like other Black entertainers before him, he was accused of being a communist, and ‘blacklisted’. This did not stop him from supporting and fighting for equal rights for people of color everywhere. And he never stopped working for this, an activist to the end. He continued to sing until his voice wouldn’t let him. His legacy is tremendous, and a source of pride for Jamaicans everywhere.
I have to admire those who find their life’s calling and stay true to it to the end. When you are struggling against insurmountable odds, it is easy to give up, to think that someone else will carry the torch. Swimming upstream is hard work, it takes energy and strength and courage. Whether you are fighting for more awareness of the dangers of climate change or injustice; gun violence or anti-gay rhetoric, sometimes it must be tempting to give up, to leave the struggle for the next generation. And yet (thankfully) they don’t. They keep right on to the end of the road.
This week I have been singing the hymn cited above off and on, two tunes alternating in my head. ‘I would be true for there are those who trust me……I would be humble, for I know my weakness…’ Whether you know it to be sung to the tune of the Londonderry Air (Oh Danny Boy), or the other more traditional one (that I can’t find at present), it is a great set of affirmations to relate to.
This Friday morning I applaud all of the warriors who are doing battle on our behalf, fighting for environmental awareness; fighting against the epidemic of gun violence; fighting for the lives of Native American women who disappear in outlandish numbers every year; fighting for maternal health; fighting against racism and bigotry; may your numbers swell and be equal to the fight, and may you be able to ‘…look up and laugh and love and lift’.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!
Here’s to the warriors! (I like to think I am one). I wrote an obituary for Harry Belafonte, but it seemed quite inadequate…