Irving Burgie, 1924–2019
The lyricist who got the world singing ‘Day-O’
With a song about a dockworker aching for his night shift to end, Irving Burgie hooked the world on Caribbean rhythms. A singer, composer, and lyricist, Burgie was the lead writer of Harry Belafonte’s 1956 smash single “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song),” an adaptation of a Jamaican work song that features the yearning refrain “Daylight come and me wanna go home.” Burgie helped craft seven of the 10 other tracks on Belafonte’s Calypso LP, including “Jamaica Farewell” and “I Do Adore Her.” That album, the first by a single artist to sell more than 1 million copies, rocketed Belafonte to stardom. Burgie would write dozens more songs for Belafonte, release his own albums, and create a successful off-Broadway musical, 1963’s Ballad for Bimshire. None of it eclipsed “Day-O.” The song’s chorus hit a chord, he said. “For people who had been working all day, it became sort of an office cry.”
Burgie was born in Brooklyn to a father from Virginia and a mother from Barbados, said The New York Times. He “took a serious interest in music” during World War II, when he served in an all-black engineering battalion and sang in an Army chapel choir. The G.I. Bill paid for Burgie to study at the Juilliard conservatory in Manhattan, where he majored in voice and planned to become a singer of classical music. After college, he worked at a summer camp in upstate New York where he became friends with Belafonte, a fellow counselor with parents from the Caribbean.
“The American folk musical revival of the 1940s and ’50s led Burgie to reconnect with his roots,” said The Washington Post. He became “a walking library of songs” from the Caribbean islands, absorbing the sounds of everything from Trinidadian calypso to Jamaican mento. The songs he wrote for Belafonte earned Burgie some $20 million in royalties, said NPR.com. Burgie “gave some of that money to civil rights activists, and in 1960 funded a magazine based in Harlem called The Urbanite.” Perhaps his greatest gift was to Barbados: In 1966, he wrote the rousing lyrics to the former British colony’s national anthem, “In Plenty and in Time of Need.” When Barbados celebrated its Independence Day last week, Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley “called for a moment of silence in Burgie’s honor.”