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A fond Calypso farewell
Let me run something by you.
“Day-O. Me say day, me say day, me say day-o.”
I imagine half the people reading this heard some distant bells when they read that. The other half wonders if I’ve mixed up my meds and I’m freaking out.
At ease, everybody. That was just a half-remembered remnant of an old folk song that swept the English speaking world a little over half a century ago when a young singer named Harry Belafonte sang those words into a microphone for the first time.
It was a simple folk tale, the story of a night shift worker who stacks bananas. He’s been working all night. After a little partying.
I work all night on a drink of rum.
His work is hard. And repetitive.
I stack banana till de mornin’ come
Packing bananas is not pleasant work and it’s not easy.
Six foot, seven foot, eight foot bunch.
And, it can be dangerous work.
A beautiful bunch of ripe banana . . .
Hide the deadly black tarantula...
As with most jobs, there’s a foreman, an inspector, a head honcho to be reckoned with. In this case, it’s the tally man. In the banana business, everybody has to reckon with the tallyman.
Come Mister Tallyman, tally me banana.
Our man is tired. And hung over. And the sun’s coming up.
Daylight come and me wan go home.
It’s a simple song. A simple folk tale, really.
Nobody expected much of it when, almost exactly 57 years ago, on September 8th, 1956, Harry Belafonte recorded that song, called variously Day-O, The Banana Boat Song or, in Jamaica, Hill and Gully Rider. It was just a filler song for the B side of an album called Calypso. The album had Jamaica Farewell and Matilda — and Belafonte’s people knew those songs were bound to be hits.
But the Banana Boat song surprised everyone. It was a smash; a number one single. It propelled the whole album to number one on the Billboard Charts where it remained for 31 weeks – which was unheard of at the time.
Not only that, the album stayed on the charts for the next 99 weeks — almost two years. That was a feat that would not be repeated until Michael Jackson recorded Thriller, forty years later.
So if the song was such a mega event, how come half the people reading this column never heard of it?
That’s because of another musical phenomenon that burst onto the world stage in 1956. It arrived in the form of a hillbilly truck driver from Tennessee.
Belafonte’s Calypso album surfaced precisely when a revolutionary force that came to be known as Rock and Roll coalesced into an unstoppable force named Elvis.
Without Elvis, no Rolling Stones, Beatles, Springsteen, Rush ... all that might have been buried in a tsunami of Calypso music.
But it didn’t happen. History, as history often does, did a little hop, skip and a jump and Calypso music, which looked to dominate the musical scene, became a musical footnote instead.
History does that sort of thing from time to time. Ask the dinosaurs. Ask Neanderthals.
Oh, right. We can’t.
Arthur Black is a regular columnist. He lives on Salt Spring Island.