Elder statesman of Caribbean music he may be but Belafonte is still best known in Britain for this and the “Banana Boat Song”. I’ll give a pass to most music at Christmas but this arrangement is too slow and syrupy to really enjoy, despite the richness of Belafonte’s voice. He has a proud record as an anti-racist activist – perhaps ironically, Belafonte’s biggest record shows perfectly the acceptable limits of ‘blackness’ in British pop of the time. You can hear a Jamaican tint to his accent throughout the song, but the enunciation is always perfect, finickity almost, even when the lyrics bear traces of patois. “Them find no place to born she child”, for instance is sung with all the pace and vigour of the Queen’s Speech.
The effect is an odd, antique one. Almost ten years after the Windrush passengers arrived, this cosy exoticism was clearly Britain’s preferred version of black pop. But with another four decades passed, Belafonte’s curious delivery seems patronising to its origins and – more slyly – to its white audience. A comically genteel version of how those funny colonials talk, yes yes, but doesn’t that careful consonant-counting remind you of how Brits tend to speak – Ver-y. Slow-ly. In. Eng-lish – whenever they meet Johnny Foreigner? And what does that say about the record’s large and eager audience and which end of the stick it got?