Harry sings blue

An encounter with an icon

"He can leave his boots under my bed any time." The first time I heard that expression was over Harry Belafonte, and she said it with a shivered reverence that emerged from the limbic quarters of her soul.

Ruby was the mother of my fiancé Vittoria. She was a country girl from far western New South Wales, where the green pastureland of the state thins into scrubland, before stretching into the ochre deserts of the interior. Ruby was also one of the the least known and most beautiful of Belafonte's songs, and one I could sing well.

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The Darling River used to be navigable 700 km far from the coast, and the town of Bourke to which it reached – a desert town during the Great Drys – once held the world's furthest inland Admiralty Court.

I guess the court was for the rowdys who did whatever on the paddle steamers that made their way up to Ruby's hometown of Bourke to carry back wool bales for the English cloth markets, a trade route that made Australia the wealthiest per capita country in the world around 1900 when Queen Victoria was still on the throne.

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The paddle steamer "Nile" on the Darling River during a big dry, maybe around 1910. Photo by Harry Brisbane Williams.

Ruby had seen Belafonte sing in Sydney on his 1960 tour, when she'd begun to date Mimi, an Italian post-war immigrant who went from being a traveling shoe salesman to the owner of one of Sydney's great Italian restaurants in Kings Cross.

Aside from marrying a suave young Italian, her encounter with Harry at that single concert left a mark that just wouldn't be washed away, and never went dry.

But before then, Ruby and Mimi had traveled back to Ascoli Piceno for a few years to try the Italian life, where their daughter was born.

So Vittoria really was Italian, and I really was in love the first time I saw her sashaying down the steps of the Manning lecture hall in Sydney University when I was fresh out of high school. Vittoria was my Italian future, but and so, and so...

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Vittoria, musician, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. We'd just become engaged.

When we met, I had just bought his great album, a beat-up but original pressing of Belafonte Sings the Blues, his first stereophonic album, recorded in 1958 in New York City.

It was a great find, and the album cover itself was in a light relief, with a reinforced cardboard edge as though predicting the heavy use an album like this would get – a classic before it was even released.

But it was also all the other things I liked about Harry.

A New Yorker of Jamaican and Jewish heritage, he put himself and his whole career on the line during the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, supporting the civil rights movement with real money and his own sweat (he bailed hundreds of activists, including Martin Luther King Jr.), while blackballing tours of the South. He wouldn't have them if they weren't going to have his brothers and sisters.

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Harry and Martin, straight outta the hoosegow.

Yeah, Harry had guts, and he was ready to sacrifice it all for the greater good. This was a guy I could listen to. Absent mentors in life, Harry's Danny Boy would do just fine.

A favourite story is his friendship with Sidney Poitier. These two bucks, now both in their 95th years and lifelong friends, knew each other from 17 when they were hauling boxes, washing dishes and packing shelves as aspiring actors, and taking classes alongside Marlon Brando, Tony Curtis, and Walter Matthau.

Two giant men who, from the outside at least, appeared to carry with them throughout their lives a modesty and commitment to the real world.

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Well Vittoria and I fell apart after a few years, and Ruby died. I went to a lot of jazz and blues clubs when I lived in New York City. I had already seen Eartha Kitt singing at the Carlton Club, and for a while I lived above the club where Blossom Dearie was still singing into her 80s in Hells Kitchen, not far from Times Square, two women whose albums I'd been listening to since I was a child.

My daughter was born in New York's Roosevelt Hospital, and I bought an apartment in Cobble Hill, with a sweeping view over the rooftops of historic Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. It was just a stone-throw from the Tiffany's factory and the house in which Churchill's mother Jenny was born. I loved my neighbourhood.

Harry's music filled our apartment, and I hushed my child to sleep with my own low renditions of Cotton Fields at night, a father's soft cooing while I paced the Redhook waterfront trying to find that lullaby sweetpoint with my restless baby.

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Wife and child, the rooftop outcrop of my apartment in Brooklyn with a Manhattan backdrop, and tomatoes on vine...

Then, one fine day I got into a Manhattan elevator, and there was Harry Belafonte.

Or maybe I was in the elevator and he got it, I really can't remember because what I remember was just Harry, and nothing else.

I had idolised this guy since I was a child, and I didn't hesitate... Mr Belafonte, I have to tell you – I've raised my child on your music... to which he cracked that Harry smile, said "Man, you just made my day," and shook my hand with a ton of heart.

What a guy.

#belafonte #belafonteblues #cobblehill #newyorkcity