Reflecting on missed opportunity
I missed my chance with Harry Belafonte.
Many years ago, Kathy, Sara and I went to New York to see “Angels in America,” and at intermission, I went to the men’s room, where I found myself standing between John Lithgow on my left, to whom I had nothing to say, and Belafonte on my right, to whom I had something to say but didn’t realize it at the time.
Indeed, I didn’t realize it until just the other day, when for some reason, he popped into my head, and almost immediately after, my father popped up there, too.
What I now know I should have said was this:
“Excuse me, Mr. Belafonte, and I’m hip that this is kind of an awkward moment, what with you talking over my head to Mr. Lithgow and, of course, the process in which we three are presently engaged, but I just want you to know that my father believes, and often told me, that your version of ‘Take My Mother Home’ was perhaps the finest piece of vocal music he’d ever heard. He loved that song, and would never mention it without mentioning you. Now: Where were we?”
But I didn’t, and the moment was lost.
How many moments do we lose in life that we don’t even realize we’ve lost until so many years later? This was one kind of silly, one but I think it was important. Certainly, Harry Belafonte needed no praise from me, nor from my father, but I think it might have pleased him to know that.
“Take My Mother Home” is an obscure song written by Hall Johnson and billed as a “Negro Spiritual” when you Google it, and there is a YouTube version of Belafonte singing it, which I recommend to you.
And here, I stole the lyrics from negro
“I think I heard Him say, when He was struggling up the hill / I think I heard Him say, take my mother home / Then I’ll die easy, take my mother home / I’ll die so easy, take my mother home.
“I think I heard Him say, when they was raffling off His clothes / I think I heard Him say, take my mother home / I think I heard Him cry, when they was nailing in the nails / I think I heard Him cry, take my mother home.
“I’ll die this death on Calvary, ain’t gonna die no more / I’ll die on Calvary, ain’t gonna die no more / Ain’t gonna die no more.
I think I heard Him say, when He was giving up the ghost / I think I heard Him say, please, take my mother home / Please, take my mother home.”
As you can see, it’s about the crucifixion, and maybe I thought about this because Easter was upon us, and is now gone again, but I don’t know for sure.
And this, I stole from the website Feenotes.com about the song’s genesis:
“This song written/arranged by the composer and arranger Hall Johnson was published in 1952. The music is based on a small piece of a spiritual folk song that was found in a collection by William Augustus Logan who was born in 1871.
“The lyrics are based on a biblical narrative from John: 19: 26-27 and it was initially written for a solo baritone and a cappella chorus.
“The song was recorded by Harry Belafonte for his chart topping 1956 album ‘Belafonte’ and has since been performed in concert by many choirs and artists.”
I remember my father talking about this song so many years ago, but I don’t remember why, and maybe we owned that Belafonte album, but that’s unlikely because my parents never owned a record player, but it’s probably that, because Belafonte’s album was so popular, that the song played on the radio, maybe even around Easter.
And that makes me more sorry that I didn’t speak to Belafonte that night in New York in the men’s room, as awkward as that might have been, because maybe he would have taken the time to tell me something about the song and why he recorded it, because it is a weird song for that album, which featured things like “Matilda” and “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Jump Down, Spin Around,” so I wish I knew the story and I wish I had asked him but, you know, we all have these “I wish I had …” moments flowing through our lives, and this is just one of mine that is, in the great scheme of things, unimportant, especially to Belafonte.
And it probably wouldn’t have been terribly important to Lithgow that I had absolutely nothing I wanted to tell him, because this was before his brilliant turn on “Dexter” as a great villain, The Trinity Killer, the best “Dexter” villain, I think, but that was long after the “Angels” men’s room scene.
But when moments are upon us, we don’t always notice them, and this moment was about 20 years ago and I remember it vividly because, after, all …
HARRY BELAFONTE, man. Wow. Yeah, OK, John Lithgow, too, and sure, it would have been better being between HARRY BELAFONTE and Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk, but …
And, by the way, nine days after you read this will be my mother’s birthday. And the anniversary of her death.
Mike Cleveland is former editor of The Cabinet.