Like pretty much everyone born in the 1950s, I can’t remember not knowing “Jamaica Farewell.” I never learned the words, but could sing all the verses — and still can, though I more often play it as an instrumental. By the time I got seriously interested in guitar, I was into folk and blues and thought of this as a kind of lightweight pop song. A lot of people in my generation were reacting against the pop-folk wave pioneered by people like the Weavers, which had reached its apex with Harry Belafonte’s “calypso” recordings, and tended to dismiss this song as “not real calypso,” and I probably would have continued to ignore it if I hadn’t started playing with Perry Lederman.
I’ve written about Perry in a previous post, so here I’ll just say that he was one of the most dedicated, tasteful, and virtuosic musicians I’ve ever heard, and a huge influence on my playing. I was fortunate to spend many hours playing with him over many years, and one of his quirks was that he tended to stick to a very small repertoire. He was deeply influenced by Indian classical music — he studied sarod for many years with Ali Akbar Khan — and his thing was digging deeply into a few familiar pieces, often playing a single tune for fifteen or twenty minutes. Most of his favorites were old-time, three-chord fingerpicking classics from artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten, but they included a couple of pop-folk hits: he often played Donovan’s “Colours” and when I got into Congolese guitar, he responded to my interest in African rhythms by suggesting we play “Jamaica Farewell.” I’ve been playing it ever since and still play one of Perry’s licks in it, though mostly I just improvise variations loosely based on the style I learned from Jean-Bosco Mwenda and Edouard Masengo.
I later went back and listened to a lot of Belafonte’s work — or rather, watched a lot of it. For me, the records don’t capture his magic — though “Matilda” in particular is irresistibly catchy — but I always enjoy watching him, and when I was writing my history of popular music (“How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll“), I was struck by the ways he reshaped and exemplified a range of new attitudes and approaches to popular music, and his central role in the cultural shifts of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t think he has received anything like the attention he deserves from folk music historians in particular, and more broadly from cultural historians, not only in the US but around the world.
I had already filmed this video and was planning to post it when I got the news of his death, and have since been rewatching his old performances, along with many of his interviews and speeches. I mostly just play “Jamaica Farewell” as a pretty tune with a nice rhythm, and associate it with Perry, and with Masengo, who also played it. But by sad coincidence, this week it also feels like a bit of a tribute to Belafonte, and a reminder of how deeply his music and presence permeated the world in which I grew up.