Midweek Music Break: Harry Belafonte, “Lead Man Holler”

'Island in the Sun' promotional posterPromotional poster for Island in the Sun. Lurid, eh? Note the helpful logo-ish device at the top right, depicting a, y’know, actual island literally in the sun. Just in case you hadn’t already gotten the message!

You may be surprised — as I was — to learn that this week was once designated as “Harry Belafonte — Island in the Sun Week.”

Of course, this wasn’t a true national celebration but a promotional ploy for the film which opened this week in 1957, starring Harry Belafonte (also James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Dorothy Dandridge, and Michael Rennie). The film needed whatever promotional help it could get, because the Alec Waugh novel it was based on had ignited an uncomfortable firestorm of controversy, especially around the US South.

(The South Carolina legislature threatened to fine any movie theater which showed the film $5,0000. It was banned outright in Memphis. And according to the Turner Classic Movies site, “in New Orleans, the American Legion launched an unsuccessful campaign to halt the film’s screening on the grounds that it ‘contributes to the Communist Party’s aim of creating friction between the races.'” But the protests against it reached at least as far north as Minneapolis. Not that any of this actually hurt its box office much: it was the sixth biggest-earning film of the year.)

So what was the big deal?

If you didn’t know any of the cast, and didn’t know anything about the book, but relied solely on the poster above for information about the film, well, you might still have the question. I mean, look at them: about as homogeneous as it’s possible to be, ethnically speaking.

An illusion, of course, thanks to some artful work with color saturation, lighting, and watercolors. The main character, Harry Belafonte’s David Boyeur, is an up-and-coming black labor leader and politician on the fictional island of Santa Marta, during its transition from English colonial to black rule. (Strike 1 for the film’s chances in the mid-’50s South.) Boyeur develops not-quite-a-relationship with wealthy white socialite Mavis Norman (strike 2), but at least it goes nowhere — ultimately broken off, for both of their noble sakes. (They never quite kiss, even.)

(At least, that’s how the film works out — a hastily cobbled-together outcome, the book having ended with a real Boyeur/Mavis relationship.)

And finally, throw in a handful of other interracial twists: Boyeur’s principal antagonist, white Governor Maxwell Fleury (James Mason), is exposed as the grandson of a black man; Maxwell’s sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) becomes pregnant, doesn’t want to saddle her white lover with an interracial love child… but is relieved to find out that at least her and Maxwell’s mother was white; and Maxwell’s aide Justin (Stephen Boyd) develops a romance with the mixed-race Margot (Dorothy Dandridge). Indeed, Jocelyn and Margot wind up moving with their lovers to England, where they can perhaps put all the societal judgment behind them. (Strike 3, and maybe by now we’re even working our way into the next inning.)

The film came out while Belafonte was at a popular peak, and featured two songs — the title song, and “Lead Man Holler” — to whose composition he had (at least in theory) contributed. They became two of his biggest hits.

“Lead Man Holler” itself might be called a cadence calypso number: one meant primarily to supply a rhythm to manual laborers working repetitive tasks. It reminds me a lot of some of the call-and-response chants Boy Scout leaders and drum majors, with their charges, used to sing out during parades when I was a kid, e.g.:

You ain’t got no friends on your left!
(Your LEFT!)
You ain’t got no friends on your right!
(Your RIGHT!)
Sound off!
(SOUND off!)
Cadence count!
(CADENCE count!)
One, two, three-four…
(One, two… THREE-FOUR!)

However, various sources I’ve checked point out that while Boyeur’s singing does guide sugar-cane workers in their jobs, it’s hey, Harry Belafonte up there: almost inexpressibly handsome, gleaming, and (wouldn’t you know it) apparently directing at least part of the rhythmic sing-song at a photo of Joan Fontaine…

Subtext. When it comes to “race” (whatever that is) — at least in the US, especially through a Hollywood filter — there’s always subtext.


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  1. s.o.m.e. one's brudder says:

    I more than half expected a Firesign Theater, “call and response” instead of the Scouts, one, say: from “The Howl of The Wolf Movie”… you ain’t got no friends on your left…

    • Oh, you KNOW I thought of that. But as this (RAMH) is a more or less PG-rated context, I wasn’t about to transcribe it!

      (However, interested parties can visit e.g. this page; just search there for the word “ain’t.”)

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