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Musical interlude, magical too
The appeal of songs lay in their ability to lift people, however ephemerally, to a world of music, harmony and romance — away from their spheres of anxiety
I recently received on WhatsApp, a clip showing Harry Belafonte singing ‘Jamaica Farewell' before a mesmerised open-air audience. Despite his age, the ‘King of Calypso' was gliding all over the stage, singing, gesturing, asking the audience to sing — which it did readily — soaking in the adulation. Belafonte has a magical voice and a magical presence and the song is one of the much-sung of its kind in the West — like Leadbelly's ‘Good Night Irene' and ‘Midnight Special,' Frank Sinatra's ‘Strangers in the Night,' Nat King Cole's ‘You're My Personal Possession,' Woody Guthrie's ‘This Land is Your Land,' Pete Seeger's ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?', Eartha Kitt's rendition of ‘Under the Bridges of Paris,' Joan Baez's ‘Geordie' and ‘Farewell, Angelina,' and Bob Dylan's ‘Blowin in The Wind' and ‘The Times They are a-Changin.'
Was there nostalgia in the air? Perhaps. The past always appears greener from the shores of the present, particularly when the latter is contentious, uncertain, and demanding. Of course, the past has not been an idyllic expanse. Even if life was not “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” there were murders and mayhem, wars of aggression, mass killings and genocides, forced migrations, crimes, betrayals, human-made famines, exploitation and intolerance.
‘Jamaica Farewell' was, to my mind, the principal attraction of ‘Calypso', an LP record released in 1956. It was the first record of its kind to sell over one million discs. The song resonated because the lament for a “little girl” left behind had not turned it into a mournful dirge but had come across as a sadness-tinged statement that touched a chord but did not exaggerate it to the point of hobbling its lively, lilting unfolding and lending it a lachrymous tin-pan-alley quality. A wide range of people could identify themselves with the song, in much the same way they could with the perennial ballad ‘Oh my Darling Clementine' with its refrain, “Oh my darling, Oh my darling,/Oh my darling Clementine,/You are lost and gone forever,/Dreadful sorry Clementine.”
To a great extent, the appeal of the songs mentioned above lay in their lifting of people, however ephemerally, to a world of music, harmony and romance — away from their quotidian spheres of anxiety and stress. It was a time when the memory of World War II was still fresh, as were those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Korean War and Vietnam's liberation war began, and the Cold War started setting in. The Warsaw Pact, formed under the aegis of the Soviet Union, was to be countered by the South East Asia Treaty Organisation and the Baghdad Pact, which later became the Central Treaty Organisation, formed under the leadership of the United States.
There was ubiquitous talk, albeit often sotto voce, of the danger of a nuclear war wiping out civilisation. It became loud whenever there was a crisis over an event like the Soviet suppression of the East Berlin bread riots (1953) and the Hungarian uprising (1956), and the Anglo-British invasion of the Suez Canal area in 1956.
The 1960s provided little respite. As underlined by the 1962 border war, India-China relations deteriorated steeply. The United States was deeply stretched in the Vietnam War, which seemed destined to go on endlessly and which caused intense internal controversy in the US about its underlying morality — besides triggering widespread unrest in college and university campuses by students refusing to be drafted for military service in Vietnam.
Among others, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger participated actively in the movement against the Vietnam War, with Seeger leaving his imprimatur in the form of the famous song, ‘Bring-em Home.' Indeed, everyone of the singers mentioned in this column has been a socially and politically conscious activist, supporting a number of causes, particularly the one for the civil rights of Afro-Americans. One can see a similar activist trend in India one of whose celebrated revolutionary poets, Qazi Nazrul Islam had thundered, “The great rebel, tired of war/I will be quiet the day/ When the oppressor's curved sword/Will not clang furiously on the great battle field/And the cry of the persecuted will not fill/The sky and the air.” (Translated from the original Bengali by this writer)
(The writer is Consultant Editor, The Pioneer, and an author)
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