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David and Art - “Harry Belafonte at the Lincoln Memorial”

August 28, 1963, was the day of a massive event in Washington DC known formally as the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It culminated in speeches given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to a vast crowd that reached back to the Washington Monument. It was the setting of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Artists were well represented that day. Singers Mahalia Jackson, Marian Anderson, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and others performed. Soprano Camilla Williams sang the National Anthem to open the proceedings when Anderson herself couldn’t get through the crowds in time to do so. If you watch the video from that day, you see that when Martin Luther King, Jr. arrived to take his seat, actor and singer Harry Belafonte was at that moment speaking at the podium.

Belafonte was born in Harlem in 1927. In the 1940s, he sang with jazz great Charlie Parker’s band. But he loved folk music as much, if not more, than he loved jazz. He responded to the populist aspect of it: the voice of people who gave vent to their oppression in song. Think Woody Guthrie, whose tunes Belafonte would often cover in his career. In 1951 he debuted as a folk singer at the legendary Village Vanguard singing African American, Jewish, and Caribbean tunes.

Belafonte’s 1956 album Calypso was the first ever long play album to sell more than a million copies. (A few singles had done so before but never an LP). Seven years later he was a friend and confidant of Martin Luther King.

In April, 1963, Belafonte bailed MLK out of the Birmingham, Alabama jail. “Whenever we got into trouble or when tragedy struck, Harry has always come to our aid, his generous heart wide open,” said Coretta Scott King.

Belafonte told the crowd that famous day in August that “...we believe that artists have a valuable function in any society,” he said, “since it is the artists who reveal the society to itself....” He added that “we also know that any society which ceases to respect the human aspirations of all its citizens, courts political chaos and artistic sterility....”

The need for a society to see itself, the need to have it revealed to itself, is a crucial and remarkably difficult undertaking. Let’s talk more next week about how artists do this.