Harry Belafonte undertook an ambitious and enormous recording project in 1961, an attempt to tell the whole story of what he termed "African-matrixed" music in the United States, beginning with its African origins in the 17th Century and reaching through to its urban fruition on the edge of modern soul music. Choosing not to work from field recordings or archival releases, Belafonte instead opted to record faithful re-creations of the music with a cast that included himself as well as the likes of Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry, Brownie McGhee, Joe Williams and Gloria Lynne. This massive project took ten years to complete, and then wasn't released until 30 years later, appearing in 2001 as a boxed set called The Long Road to Freedom: An Anthology of Black Music, and it contained some 80 tracks arranged chronologically across five CDs.

It featured a staggering array of work songs, mountain hollers, ballads, deep blues, chain gang songs, hymns, childrens songs, minstrel tunes, and street vendor calls. The scope of what Belafonte assembled is indeed impressive—where else would one find together Ashanti and Yoruba chants and percussion pieces, religious shouts, early spirituals, country blues, urban spirituals and excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech? While the occasional "high art" approach to these songs takes some getting used to, they're always lovingly and faithfully done, and one of the highlights on this massive project is Belafonte's own epic version of the folk song "Boll Weevil". The complete box set is a bit of an investment, but in many ways it’s the sweeping culmination of Belafonte’s own vision as an artist, and it’s a fascinating glimpse of history artfully reinterpreted.


Tkok Mzobe - "Kufidi M'Pala Bituta"
Bessie Jones - "Grey Goose"
Valentine Pringle - "John Henry"
Harry Belafonte - "Nobody's Business, Lord, But Mine"