The popularity of The Banana Boat Song (aka ‘Day-O’) seems not to have waned a bit since Harry Belafonte recorded it in 1956. The calypso craze may have died down, but this traditional Jamaican folk song looks destined to live forever. Belafonte’s version has been downloaded more than 14,000 times from Marine Café Blog.
For the benefit of my readers, I have collected the following snippets from various sources. I trust that they will encourage more people to listen to the song and appreciate the rich history and culture behind it.
This is an old Jamaican folk song. It was first recorded on a British disc by Edric Connor “Songs From Jamaica” in 1952. Its origin is unknown but is believed to be a banana loaders song from the late nineteenth century. Harry Belafonte had the most recognizable hit with it in 1956 but the Tarriers had a top ten hit with it as well. Alan Arkin (now and actor) sang lead on their version which incorporated another Jamaican folk song “Hill and Gully Rider.”
— from Roger McGuinn’s Folk Den
Harry Belafonte, the Harlem-born son of poor undocumented Jamaican immigrants, an untrained singer whose heart was set on becoming an actor, made music history with “Harry Belafonte: Calypso.” This record was the very first by a solo performer to sell a million copies, holding the top spot on “Billboard’s” pop album charts for an unprecedented 31 weeks (in addition, 58 weeks in the top ten, 99 weeks among the top 100).
— Judith E. Smith, from her essay “Calypso”—Harry Belafonte (1956)
In 1950 Belafonte became a folk singer, learning songs at the Library of Congress’s American folk song archives. He sang Caribbean folk songs as well, in nightclubs and theatres; his handsome appearance added to his appeal as a frequent performer on television variety programs. With hit recordings such as “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell,” he initiated a fad for calypso music and became known as the King of Calypso.
— from “Harry Belafonte: American singer, actor, and activist”, Britannica
Calypso is an Afro-Caribbean music genre that began in the nation of Trinidad and Tobago and spread throughout the West Indies. A close relative of West African kaiso, calypso music is an upbeat genre based on call-and-response singing and a syncopated 2/4 beat known as the calypso rhythm.
— from Masterclass.com
Harry Belafonte was set to appear on the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1955. For this appearance, songwriters Lord Burgess and William Attaway re-worked the lyrics of “The Banana Boat Song.” The audience loved the catchy, upbeat tune. Belafonte recorded it for his 1956 album, Calypso.
— from Historydaily.org
Belafonte’s version used lyrics adapted by Irving Burgie and William Attaway. Burgie, sometimes credited as “Lord Burgess,” is a popular Caribbean composer. Attaway was a novelist and songwriter who was friends with Belafonte. Burgie and Attaway wrote most of the songs on the Calypso album.
— from Songfacts.com
“Day-O” is so suffused with joy and pathos — that age-old human mishmash — that almost anybody with an actively beating heart sounds awesome singing it. Incredibly, in 1957, five more artists made it onto the U.S. Top Forty with their versions; these range from rich and enveloping (the jazz singer Sarah Vaughan) to unsettlingly polite (the folk-pop band The Tarriers).
— from “Harry Belafonte and the Social Power of Song”, The New Yorker
I did it as part of what would become a larger display of the music of various cultures around the world. I had had a deep interest in Africa and a deep interest in Latin America, but I got only to ‘Calypso’ and then the world stopped. I woke up one day and everyone was singing ‘Day-O.’
— Harry Belafonte, as quoted by CBS News in Harry Belafonte explains the story behind “Calypso”