UKULELE MUSING 44, 16 NOVEMBER 2019: “DAY-O—THE BANANA BOAT SONG,” A Song With Many Versions
Sometimes a song from our Yellow or Blue Books is so familiar to us—and so tied in with a particular performer—that we tend to forget that most songs, like most people, have ancestors or, at least, siblings. That’s the fun of delving into back-stories on some of the songs we play and sing.
Certainly, “Day-O—The Banana Boat Song”—that icon of Jamaican patois and calypso rhythms is one of those. Essentially, it’s a work song of dock workers working the night shift loading freshly picked bananas onto market ships. The simple lyrics describe how daylight has come, their shift is over, and they want their work to be counted up so that they can go home. The song originated as a Jamaican folk song with a repeated melody and refrain, so-called “call and response.”
There were numerous versions of the lyrics, some likely improvised on the spot by the singers. The song was probably created around the second half of the nineteenth century or the first half of the twentieth century, when there was a rise in the banana trade in Jamaica.
Of course, the best-known version of “Day-O . . .” was released by American singer Harry Belafonte in 1956 and later became one of his signature songs sung before rapt audiences all over the country.
The song was first recorded, however, by Edric Connor, a Trinidadian singer and later American film actor, in 1952.
Belafonte’s version of the song was based on this earlier release and his iconic, but later, interpretation soon zoomed up to No. 5 on the Billboard charts.
Also, in 1956, a trio calling themselves “The Tarriers,” recorded their version of the folk song and incorporated the chorus of another Jamaican song, “Hill and Gully Rider.”
This release became their biggest hit and soon out-performed Belafonte’s version by reaching No. 4 on the charts! Who would have thought that? Because they had rewritten the song with a slightly different arrangement than Connor’s and added additional lyrics, the three members of the Tarriers—Erik Darling, Bob Carey, and Alan Arkin (later better known as an actor) are, in fact, credited as the writers of the song as it appears in our Blue Book. Go figure!
The Tarriers performed regularly in New York’s Washington Square in the early 1950s, the early days of the folk music renaissance. Named after the railroad workers folk song “Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill,”
the group peaked with two hits: “Cindy, Oh Cindy”
The Tarriers, “Cindy:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYGJvuserZQ
and our tune “Day-O . . .” which they also performed in the now forgotten, low-budget movie “Calypso Heat Wave.”
Arkin left the group in 1958 to pursue his stage and film acting career and the group held on with various other members until fading in the 1960s.
For us, our “Day-O . . .” is Edric Connor’s harvest, the Tarriers’s tweak, and Harry Belafonte’s signature. So, get out your bongos, steel drums, and your ukes and “load those bananas,” at least until daylight comes! How about these costumes for First Night? Perhaps not . . .
From “Beetlejuice” the Musical (Bizarre!): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQXVHITd1N4
Sorry, this rather odd uke doesn’t “appeel” to me.
And, of course, Ukulele: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDHgAdDhhIM