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.
In the '50s, as the "calypso craze" took hold, other white acts had hits in the genre, often with novelty numbers (Perry Como with ""Pa-Paya Mama"; Georgia Gibbs with "Somebody Bad Stole De Wedding Bell"), but Belafonte had authenticity on his side; his father was from the West Indies, and his mother from Jamaica, where he lived for about five years growing up.
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.
Belafonte said in an interview with the ArtsJournal blog Jazz Beyond Jazz: "The most important thing to me about 'The Banana Boat Song' is that before America heard it, Americans had no notion of the rich culture of the Caribbean. Very few of them did, anyway, which made no sense to me. It made no sense to me back then that people in America would not respond to the Caribbean culture I knew in joyous, positive ways. But there were these cultural assumptions then about people from the Caribbean - that they were all rum drinking, sex-crazed and lazy - not they were tillers of the land, harvesters of bananas for landlords of the plantations.
I thought, let me sing about a new definition of these people. Let me sing a classic work song, about a man who works all night for a sum equal to the cost of a dram of beer, a man who works all night because it’s cooler then than during the day."
In the E*TRADE 2018 Super Bowl Commercial "This Is Getting Old," senior citizens sing altered lyrics ("I'm 85 and I want to go home") to this song, reflecting their woes at having to work in their dotage.
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn January 20th 1957, the Tarriers performed "The Banana Boat Song" on the CBS-TV program 'The Ed Sullivan Show'... At the time the Tarriers' original version was at #7 on Billboard's Best Seller in Stores chart; and one position higher at #6 was Harry Belafonte's covered version of the song... For what it's worth; the song at #2 was "Young Love" by Sonny James, while at #3 was Tab Hunter's version of the same song... And holding down the two bottom positions of the Top 10 was Fats Domino; his "Blue Monday" was at #9 and his "Blueberry Hill" was at #10.
Jack from Burlington, NjWhen initially recording the song, being asked for the title, Harry (spelled) named it, "Day Done Light".
Barry from Sauquoit, NyOnDecember 23rd, 1956, two versions of "The Banana Boat Show" entered Billboard's Top 100 chart; the Fontane Sisters version peaked at #13 and spent 18 weeks on the Top 100 while Sarah Vaughan's version reached #19 and stayed on the Top 100 for 14 weeks... R.I.P. Geri Fontane (1921 - 1993), Bea Fontane (1915 - 2002), Marge fontane (1917 - 2003), and Ms. Vaughan (1924 - 1990).
Steve from South Central, FlIt is a Jamaican mento song, not calypso (Trinidad and Tobago). The name of the group is The Tarriers (not Terriers).
Adrian from Johor Bahru, MalaysiaDuring the ensuing war on terror there was a modified version of the song circulating on the internet which poked fun at then President George W Bush, Collin Powell and Osama bin Laden. It goes, Day O Daylite come and we drop the bomb ! Come Mr Taliban turn over bin Laden !
Megan from Stevenson, AlThis is such a classic loved by everybody. Completely awesome!
Kombucha Mushroom :) from Millihole, AustraliaHa ha I first heard this song on Beetlejuice :) yeahah hide the deadly black tarantula. . .
Rob from Detroit, MiShouldn't the lyric read: "Hide the deadly black tarantula?"
Lalah from Wasilla, AkThe first song on the B side of Calypso is called "STAR-O". It's the same tune except the dock workers are starting their shift. "Star a come and me carry me load". This is acutally a good album. My dad played it often when I was growing up so it reminds me of my childhood.
Darrell from EugeneA variation of this song (a sample is "Day-O, One-Day Sale, Sunday Only at the Bon Marche) was used in sale commercials for the now-defunct Bon Marche high-end department store chain (also famous for Frango candy) for many years. "The Bon" was very prominent in the Pacific Northwest, which is where I live and was taken over by Macy's some years ago. The store in my hometown is now a Macy's.