March - April 1997
On a New Album, Songwriter Irving Burgie Records "Day-O," "Jamaica Farewell" and His Other Caribbean-Flavored Classics for the First Time By Erik Philbrook
Singer/songwriter/folklorist/teacher Irving Burgie is a modest man. Even so, he wants the world to know his name. It's not as if he hasn't made his musical mark yet. For more than forty years now, the world has been singing along to his songs. One song in particular has become an international phenomenon. In fact, you only have to utter the song's two-syllable title to incite just about anyone, anywhere to start singing its joyous refrain: "Day-O, Day-ay-ay-O, daylight come and me wan' go home." You know the rest. What you might not know is that Burgie wrote eight of the eleven songs on Harry Belafonte's 1956 album, Calypso, which became the first album in America to sell over a million copies. The album stayed at #1 on the Billboard charts for 36 weeks and stayed on the charts for a year and a half. Calypso also went #1 in most countries around the world and the songs, including "Day-O," and "Jamaica Farewell," became standards. Burgie went on to write a total of 35 songs for Belafonte, as well as several hits for the Kingston Trio and other groups. PlayBack talked to Burgie at his home in Brooklyn after he had just returned from a gig at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. Burgie is currently touring in support of his new album, Island in the Sun -- The Songs of Irving Burgie (EMI/Angel), on which, essentially, he performs his now-classic songs, including "Day-O," "Jamaica Farewell," "Angelina" and "Land of the Sea and Sun" as he originally conceived them. Your songs evoke Caribbean island life so beautifully, yet you grew up in Brooklyn. How were you able to capture that feeling in song?I grew up in a West Indian neighborhood in Brooklyn and we ate the same foods. You could buy sugar cane and mauby and peas and rice and whatever. Half of my family from the West Indies were all living up here, so I had my aunts and uncles and cousins just like anywhere else. So the music was all around the house and on boat rides and picnics.Tell us about your formal music studies?I grew up in the Tin Pan Alley days, so I knew everything that came over the radio by heart. But I didn't take music seriously until I was in the army. During the war, I went overseas in 1943, in China, Burma and India. A guy in my outfit was an alto sax player and I started studying theory with him, and singing in the little chapel in the choir. He helped me along vocally. I studied music pretty seriously while over there, cause we had the time out there in the jungles, and when I came back I got into Juilliard that summer, stayed there for a couple of years and then went to the University of Arizona, then to USC. When I studied, it was all classics: the Italian anthology, then the French songs, then the German Lieder.With such a "serious" music background, how did you happen to start writing in a folk style?By the time I came out of my formal studies in 1949, the folk thing had really gotten big, and I started studying folk music. I did research and even had a little program while I was at USC broadcasting folk music once a week. After that, I came back to New York, played some hootenannies, and knocked around with the progressive movement so to speak. I had taken Caribbean music for granted. At that time, there was all sorts of things going on, with all of these countries crying for independence, India, Indonesia, Africa. The whole civil rights movement was brewing in America and there were a lot of ideologies getting together and I started writing songs for my act. Although I could read music and write it, I never thought of myself as a songwriter until I wrote "Jamaica Farewell," which was the first song I ever wrote. I make songwriters green with envy when I tell them that.How did you get hooked up with Harry Belafonte?I was doing a lot of research into the folklore of the Caribbean when we went into the Village Vanguard with Max Gordon in 1954. Then I ran into a scriptwriter for Harry Belafonte. His sister had told him about me and he wanted to hear what I had, so I let him listen to my stuff, which by that point included "Day-O" and "Jamaica Farewell." When they heard the stuff, they were just getting ready to book the Ed Sullivan Show/Colgate Comedy Hour in the 8:00 time slot on Sunday. They hired Harry to do a John Henry show, and when they heard the material, they switched the whole thing to the Caribbean, around these songs. They did the program in October of 1955 and it was a smash. Harry was working at the Waldorf at the time, so we recorded the thing for RCA at Webster Hall. RCA originally made a couple hundred thousand copies, and the thing just went and went and went."Day-O" was used most memorably in the film Beetlejuice and has since almost become a theme song for good vibrations in subsequent commercials and movies. How do you feel about that?Two generations had had the song before, but after Beetlejuice all the little kindergarden kids and high school kids were walking around singing the song. It really gave it another tremendous shot all over again. I think it's great.At 72, you've had a career most songwriters only dream about. What do you hope to accomplish with your new album?Everybody knows my music, but nobody really knows me. People in the business know me, but the public doesn't really know who I am. I'd really like to establish that in the next year, and just have fun and play, 'cause I enjoy it.
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