Forty-five years ago, Belafonte released an album titled Calypso, containing such songs as "Jamaica Farewell" and "The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)," that would become the first by a single artist to sell more than a million copies. During the 1950s and '60s, he was among the most ubiquitous cultural figures in America: a Tony Award-winner, an Emmy Award-winner, a chart-topper, a film star, an activist and civil-rights leader seen in the constant company of his close friend and confidant, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Belafonte, wrote Look magazine in 1957, "is the first Negro matinee idol in our entertainment history." As such, he was accorded a modicum of power, which he used in the '50s to convince RCA Records chief George Marek to allow him to record an anthology of black music that would encompass everything from African chants to slave spirituals to chain-gang songs to minstrel-show compositions.
With the assistance of Marek and conductor-arranger-historian Leonard De Paur, Belafonte would spend a decade, from 1961 to 1971, holed up at Webster Hall in New York City recording five albums' worth of material with Count Basie's vocalist Joe Williams, bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, jazz-pop singer Gloria Lynne, spiritual and slave-song practitioner Bessie Jones and a choir of dozens. The anthology was to have been released in the early 1970s; it was to have been a testament to struggle and a document of empowerment.
"The ultimate truth of this collection," Belafonte says now, some four decades after the project's genesis, "is about a people's struggle for freedom and for rights and for expression." His voice is a blend of harsh and smooth--sandpaper against silk.
But business stood in the way of such ambition: When a longstanding, record-club distribution deal between RCA and Reader's Digest collapsed in acrimony in the early '70s, the project, then titled New World A' Comin': An Anthology of Black Music, was banished to the vaults, where it sat for nearly three decades--unloved, almost forgotten. RCA, which is now owned by worldwide conglomerate BMG, had little interest in releasing such an enormous collection of esoteric music, and over time, the label became so decentralized the right hand had no idea what the right arm was doing. Only Belafonte, who obtained ownership of the anthology in the late 1970s, knew of its existence, and he was powerless to procure its release. "There was still this resistance," he says. "It was, "Where do we put it? How do we market it? Who's interested in this? It's not Top Ten or MTV.' There was more of that around than not."
Only now, some 40 years after its inception, is the collection seeing release: On September 11, Buddha Records, under the auspices of BMG, will ship The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, which contains five discs (just as Belafonte intended), a luxurious 140-page hardback book detailing the music and musicians and a DVD documenting the events leading to the boxed set's release. It's an astonishing document when gulped down in one sitting, a time-travel narrative that begins with African chants and ballads, boards the slave ships, disembarks in the cotton fields and battlefields, moves into the church and the minstrel shows and ends just before King's March on Washington. It reveals, as Belafonte insists, "a musical history of America's Africans."
Still, it's almost unfathomable that such a remarkable piece of work would sit on the shelves for so long. Had it not been for perseverance and a little luck, Long Road to Freedom might never have been released at all. Belafonte says he thought of just donating it to the Smithsonian, so scholars and historians might one day stumble across it.
"It takes a lot of work to lose something like this," Belafonte says, his voice collapsing into harsh laughter. He mentions that RCA considered releasing it in a condensed form, which "was like telling me, "You can only have one half of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.' Excuse the arrogance in the metaphor, but when those ideas were suggested, I said, "No, it must stand as a whole.'