Longread: Voice and Hammer by Jeff Sharlet

by Rachel Baker on October 3, 2013

Here’s a great long read about Harry Belefonte – his life and his role in the civil rights of our country. Take some time to read it. Its fascinating and informative and gives a perspective we don’t often hear. Jeff Sharlet wrote this for The Virginia Quarterly Review.

Belafonte had negotiated one of the first pay-?or-?play contracts in the business. He’d get paid whether they used it or not. Revlon’s money was already gone.

So Belafonte had an Odetta, and the first black dancer with Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and two then-?unknown bluesmen named Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and a young director named Norman Jewison, whom Belafonte had plucked from a dead end after Jewison had been fired—?by Revlon—?just weeks before. Jewison, who’d go on to become a three-?time Oscar nominee, thought he had nothing left to lose; he’d already lost. That was how Belafonte liked it. Bottomed out and mad. He had a voice, a dancer, a camera, and his own almost supernatural control of the stage. What he needed, he realized, was a church. A temple. Because he wanted Miss Barbara Britton to understand what this really was. Not a song and dance—?not just a song and dance—?but—?“you see it?” he asks me, and through his eyes, then my own, I do: A judgment. He could have built a gallows, but no—?he chose a church. He built a church, right on stage. High modernist, nothing but a line, an angular arch, his singers sitting in the pews, Belafonte one among them and now Odetta rises up like the tide, singing “The Walls of Jericho,” gospel made over as fight song.


Jeff Sharlet is Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth and a contributing editor for Harper’s and Rolling Stone. His most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die (Norton, 2011), which followed his best-selling The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, 2008).

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