Dec 03

HARRY BELAFONTE – “Mary’s Boy Child”

Popular15 comments • 2,682 views

#65, 22nd November 1957

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?



  1. 1
    wichita lineman on 17 Aug 2008 #

    I’d never thought of it like this, gently patronising one and all. It’s a good point. But I’m not sure this wasn’t a preferred clipped, enunciated style of singing that extended to Johnny Mathis, then Arthur Lee. It can also be heard in Jamaican recordings like Derrick Harriott’s Do I Worry from some years later.

    Tom, I’m intrigued to know if you’ve revised yr opinion on this ‘report’ as you have on other 45s from the 50s. I think it has a tangible festive magic worth a 7, and certainly find it better than Boney M’s slouchy, joyless version.

  2. 2
    DJ Punctum on 18 Aug 2008 #

    Pretty patronising to suggest, without substantive evidence and particularly in view of Belafonte’s subsequent political activities, that he was singing like this deliberately. You might as well say that Nat “King” Cole was pandering.

  3. 3
    wichita lineman on 18 Aug 2008 #

    I think yr right, and I think Harry sings it quite beautifully. Nat’s odd pronunciation has often baffled me, “a blassom fell”, “are you rill mona lisa?” etc. What’s that all about?

  4. 4
    DJ Punctum on 18 Aug 2008 #

    It’s those Alabama vowels, I guess…

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    Matthew on 11 Jan 2009 #

    I knew and remain nostalgically fond of the Boney M version, but this is much classier. Heartwarming and beautiful.

  6. 6
    Billy Smart on 20 Apr 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch:Harry belafonte didn’t make any appearances on UK television until the 1970s. All 3 shows survive;

    HARRY BELAFONTE: with Harry Belafonte (1977)

    THE JULIE ANDREWS HOUR: with Harry Belafonte, Rich Little, Sivuca (1973)

    THE MUPPET SHOW: with Harry Belafonte (1979)

  7. 7
    lonepilgrim on 20 Jan 2012 #

    R.I.P. Johnny Otis – who got to Number 2 with ‘Ma he’s making eyes at me’ behind this number 1.


  8. 8
    Mutley on 20 Jan 2012 #

    Johnny Otis – also did pretty well with Willie and the Hand Jive. If you want to learn how to hand jive see


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    Mutley on 17 Feb 2012 #

    The recent “news” that MI5 opened a file on Charlie Chaplin at the request of the FBI regarding alleged communist activities in the early 1950s made me wonder whether the US entertainment industries blacklist during the period of McCarthyism ever touched pop music. As far as I know, Harry Belafonte was the only singer on the Popular list to be blacklisted, although quite a few well-known jazz and folk musicians and singers were – Lena Horne, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives etc.

    Some American theatre and movie people (e.g. Sam Wanamaker) moved to the UK during this period and established themselves there. Were there any popular music equivalents?

  10. 10
    swanstep on 17 Feb 2012 #

    @mutley. Paul Robeson had his passport taken off him for most the ’50s and wasn’t able to record much during that time either, and as soon as he got his passport back he high-tailed it to the UK mainly for a few years at the beginning of the 1960s (I forget the details, but checking now it looks like wikipedia has pretty good coverage of Robeson and of course of McCarthyism’s victims more generally).

  11. 11
    wichita lineman on 21 Jan 2013 #

    It seems Greta Garbo owned a copy of this. Or at least one Harry Belafonte record, along with Supremes and Beatles records. Allison Anders just bought Greta’s collection and is writing about it here: http://gretasrecords.tumblr.com/

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    lonepilgrim on 21 Jan 2013 #

    did she play the records at her home for wayward boys and girls?

  13. 13
    Sam C on 30 Jun 2013 #

    Another one that found favour among football crowds, though from which version I’ve no idea. “Hark now hear, the [team X] sing, the [team Y] ran away/And we will fight for evermore/Because of Boxing Day.” I don’t know if it was only aired at Boxing Day matches.

  14. 14
    chrisew71 on 28 Mar 2018 #

    Even though he spent part of his childhood in Jamaica, Belafonte mainly got turned on to folk music through records. As good as he is (and his live at Carnegie Hall album shows what a great performer he could be), I sometimes get the sense that he’s approaching the music from a distance, like someone studying the style, even imitating what they hear. It works, just lacks the authenticity some folk and world music fans might expect.

  15. 15
    Gareth Parker on 9 Jun 2021 #

    Lovely stuff from HB. 7/10.

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