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This is a traditional Jamaican song that was sung by dock workers who worked throughout the night loading bananas onto ships. It's daylight, and they look forward to the arrival of the Tallyman (who will take inventory) so they can go home.
Belafonte's version used lyrics adapted by Irving Burgie and William Attaway. Burgie, sometimes credited as "Lord Burgess," is a popular Caribbean composer. Attaway was a novelist and songwriter who was friends with Belafonte. Burgie and Attaway wrote most of the songs on the Calypso album.
This song was first recorded in 1952 by Edric Conner, a musician from Trinidad who sang it with his band The Carribeans as "Day De Light." The song re-emerged in 1956 when the Folk singer Bob Gibson taught the song to the Folk trio The Tarriers after hearing it on a trip to Jamaica. Once The Terriers recorded it, the Calypso Craze took off in America, and Belafonte capitalized on the trend: According to BMI, the Calypso album was the first to sell over 1 million copies.
Alan Arkin, who went on to fame as an actor, was a member of The Tarriers. Their version was a combination of the traditional "Banana Boat Song" and a Jamaican Folk song called "Hill and Gully Rider." Shirley Bassey used the same arrangement on her 1957 version and became the first to chart with the song in the UK, hitting #8.
This remains the most popular mainstream Calypso song, and the song most identified with Belafonte. It was not the first Calypso hit in America, however. That honor goes to The Andrews Sisters - three white girls from Minnesota - who had a #1 in 1945 with "Rum and Coca-Cola
," a song written and originally recorded by the Trinidadian musician Lord Invader.
Six artists hit the US Top 40 with "The Banana Boat Song" in 1957: The Terriers version was the first to chart at #4 (#15 in the UK), followed by Belafonte, The Fontane Sisters (#13), Steve Lawrence (#18), Sarah Vaughan (#19), and Stan Freberg, whose comedy version hit #25.
Belafonte performed this on TV for the first time when he was a guest star on season 3 of The Muppet Show. During the performance, he explained the significance of the Tallyman to Fozzie Bear ("he's the guy who counts the bananas as they go to the hold of the ship") and did his best to harmonize with some musically inept Muppets.
This was featured in a raucous dinner scene during the 1988 movie Beetlejuice.
Smokey Robinson & The Miracles 1965 hit "The Tracks Of My Tears
" features similar chord changes. The Miracles guitarist Marv Tarplin has admitted he got the idea after listening to Harry Belfonte's version of this song.