Life in Soundtrack: Harry Belafonte’s Pure Gold

Life in Soundtrack is a new series on the blog in which I share an album I was once obsessed with and the time in my life it immediately evokes. Consider this my musical memoir.

Our very first album of yore: Harry Belafonte’s best-of cassette tape Pure Gold (1975)


1 – Day-O
2 – Jamaica Farewell
3 – Come Back Liza!
4 – Kingston Market
5 – Angelina
6 – Jump in the Line
7 – Matilda
8 – Sweetheart from Venezuela
9 – Jump Down, Spin Around
10 – Man Smart, Woman Smarter

Picture this: it’s the early 90s. You’re in second or third grade, and your teacher has taken you to music class. There is going to be an ice breaker assignment before you all pick up your plastic recorders and commit uncoordinated musical crimes with them (mostly likely Hot Cross Buns). The assignment is this: bring your favorite song to school and share it with your peers.

Are you a Madonna fan? Queen? Prince? Elton John? Are you partial to Def Leppard? Or maybe Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, or Aerosmith??

Forget all of that, because today we are talking about me and my history of tragically overthinking every last little thing, and while I dearly loved all of the artists I just listed, I did not bring a single one of them to music class. I brought Harry Belafonte’s Pure Gold.

Let’s roll it back a minute.

I, like many children, formed my first musical tastes based on what my parents were listening to. In later years, I would also be influenced by:

  • things my friends liked;
  • the radio, via my sweet boombox;
  • music videos on MTV and VH1;
  • and downloading random tracks on limewire, desperately hoping that this time it would be a real song and not random porn noises that somebody uploaded for the lulz.

My parents had tons of Madonna and Aerosmith, and therefore I also listened to tons of Madonna and Aerosmith. Simple! So why didn’t I just bring the Immaculate Collection or Toys in the Attic on favorite song day? Because of childish insecurity of course!

For most of my life, I have had a paralyzing fear of being wrong. Being wrong, doing something wrong, saying something wrong, liking something wrong. (I got better.) The question what’s your favorite song was simple on the surface, but devilishly psyche-twisting underneath. I like many songs, I thought, but what does everyone else like? What is the correct choice to bring? If I was meant to share my favorite song with a single other person, I could tailor my recommendation to that person. But an entire class? With varying tastes? How do you chameleon your way through a situation like that?!

You can’t! And that’s the point, to be yourself. But Baby Sam could overthink herself into a frenzy, and what a frenzy it was. One time, I won an essay contest at school, and I became so worried that accepting the award in front of an audience was akin to one of the worst crimes in our family, “bragging,” that I tore up my parents’ invitation and did not tell them about it — only to stand up in front of that auditorium and realize everyone else’s parents had come, and it wasn’t a big deal. In junior high, I was so terrified of making other students feel bad that I would hide my grades, only to spawn a game in which other kids tried to get hold of my tests to see if Sam got 100% again. (Of course I had. An A- was a failure and failure was not an option.)

In seventh grade we had a brief lecture on the merits of active listening, and I took detailed notes, which I studied at length, determined to be the best at active listening, and to this day, when my natural enthusiasm bubbles up and I begin excitedly interrupting people mid-sentence and gesticulating wildly, a voice roars up inside of me: slow down! make eye contact! ask follow-up questions! make sure everyone else gets a chance to speak!!

So what is a compulsive people-pleaser to do when they are asked an opinion question with no correct answer? SPIRAL. OUT. And somehow over the course of that spiral, I rejected option after reasonable option. Pop music is too popular, what if that moment has passed and now it’s uncool. Rock music is great, but what if there is something inappropriate in the lyrics. It can’t be something sad. It can’t be too long. It can’t be the same as somebody else’s because then I’m not introducing them to something new and I am not adding value to the group activity. WAIT A SECOND! I KNOW!

And so I handed Pure Gold to my teacher, and sat back down crisscross applesauce, and watched the confusion spread palpably through the room as everyone listened, in painfully perplexed stillness, to Harry Belafonte belting out Day-O. Is a day, is a day, is a day-ay-ay-o.

It turns out: nobody else had seen the movie Beetlejuice.

And with that: welcome to Life in Soundtrack! The music-based memoir series in which I intend to lay bare my most searing memories and charming (?) neuroses. The idea was spawned when I realized I haven’t owned very many complete albums in my life, and so the ones I did have stand out — are fixed in time — and when I hear one of those tracks I am transported back.

Even when “back” means sitting on the thinly carpeted floor of an elementary school classroom, watching my classmates’ bafflement as they encountered the sweet, sweet sound of the most successful Jamaican-American pop star of the 1950s and perhaps of all time — all while squirming, red-faced, and wondering how I got myself into this mess.

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