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Calypso, a gentle Caribbean-based folk style, enjoyed a brief vogue in the United States which far outweighed its ultimate impact on the overall development of popular music. The national sensation created by Elvis Presley's music in early 1956 created both a commercial and cultural backlash. This reaction was spear- headed by both the major American record companies and the nation's intelligentsia, who found the crude beat and raw sexuality exuded by Presley and his legion of imitators to be morally as well as aesthetically offensive. Calypso, a marginal branch of third world music at the time, was in essence seized upon by these forces as an anecdote to the obnoxious teen music that threatened to overwhelm the established cultural--and economic--order of things.

Harry Belafonte, a handsome, articulate young singer of West Indian extraction, was annointed the leader of the counter-insurgence. He had first entered the U.S. singles charts with a lovely folk ballad, "Jamaica Farewell," in late October 1956. The record remained very popular for over a half year, and was followed up by the top five hit, "Banana Boat (Day-O)," and a steady succession of bestselling album releases.

Belafonte's success inspired a slew of imitators in the calypso mold, including the Tarriers and Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders, who would both reach the number four position with "The Banana Boat Song" and "Marianne," respectively. Many mainstream pop singers began recording calypso material as well. The Fontana Sisters, Steve Lawrence, and Sarah Vaughan all reached the top twenty with their own renditions of "The Banana Boat Song." The record industry, most notably trade publications such as Billboard expended a considerable amount of attention to the fad, even going so far as to hype it as a successor in popularity to rock 'n' roll.

The craze soon lost its momentum, however, and the hit recordings stopped coming. Calypso was quickly absorbed back into the commercial folk music movement. In Jamaica itself, the style soon was eclipsed by the rise of a succession of new pop amalgams in the 1960s: ska, rock steady, and reggae. By this time, calypso was largely marketed through festivals in the Caribbean islands to attract nostalgic middle American tourists.


Top Artists and Their Recordings

Harry Belafonte--Belafonte (1956); Calypso (1956); "Jamaica Farewell" (1956/7); "Mary Boy Child" (1956/7); "Banana Boat (Day-O)" (1957); An Evening With Belafonte (1957); "Hold 'Em Joe" (1957); "Mama Look at Bubu" (1957); "Island in the Sun"/"Cocoanut Woman" (1957); Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean (1957); Jump Up Calypso (1961); Calypso in Brass (1967)

Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders--"Marianne" (1957)

The Tarriers--"The Banana Boat Song" (1956/7)