A residential and business section of upper Manhattan, New York City, bounded roughly by 110th St., the East River and Harlem River, 168th St., Amsterdam Ave., and Morningside Park. That doesn’t sound a likely basis for a song. Call it Harlem however, and mental images change. From a faraway viewpoint, impressions of Harlem come from a pot-pourri of images: the Harlem Globetrotters, the Harlem Boys' Choir, the Cotton Club, Bill Clinton’s office, the churches – and the Apollo Theatre, a fabled Shangri-La for lovers of soul music, where Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Sarah Vaughan once played. There was also the book, Manchild in the Promised Land, the autobiography of Claude Brown, which left a lasting impression on readers from its memorable and vivid picture of growing up in Harlem in the 1950’s. The title of the book came from the ‘promised land’ image that New York and Harlem once held for black Southern share-croppers, before they actually arrived there.
As with most districts of New York, Harlem has had its share of songs about it over the years, adding to the mythology surrounding the place: a mythology that U2’s Angel of Harlem picked up on with its references to Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Some, like many songs about Liverpool, have focused on the vibrancy amidst the poverty. The Drifters’ Midsummer Night in Harlem, a 1974 release, sung of ‘a kind of smell in the air like the whole world’s cooking, so many girls and they’re so good looking, big sugar daddies sitting in their caddies’. This particular line-up was Charlie Thomas’ Drifters: the Drifters’ market in the UK at that time was largely sewn up by the line-up featuring Johnny Moore and the record did not sell that well there.( The Drifters had a notoriously large number of versions circulating at various times. On a walk along Hadrian’s Wall, I saw a country pub miles from anywhere with a poster advertising the forthcoming, and frankly rather surprising, appearance in the saloon bar of The Drifters, ‘direct from the USA’,).
A few years previously to the Drifters song, Bill Withers had released his own Harlem with a similar sentiment, recalling the drink and parties on Saturday night and Sunday best the following morning:’ Saturday night in Harlem, hey everything’s alright, you can really swing and shake your pretty thing, the parties are out of sight... Sunday morning here in Harlem, now everybody’s all dressed up”. One of the best known songs here, Spanish Harlem, recorded by Ben E King, Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro amongst others, was positively lyrical about the place.
Other songs have given voice to a different Harlem. Rappers Immortal Technique and Jim Jones, in their Harlem Streets, Harlem Renaissance and Harlem gave a kind of updated version of Manchild in the Promised Land.:“ The subway stays packed like a multi-cultural slave ship, It's rush hour, 2:30 to 8, non stoppin'.........It's like Cambodia the killing fields uptown, We live in distress and hang the flag upside down”. The gentrification of Harlem - rezoning - means little but more exploitation..
However, the song here, Bells of Harlem by the Dave Rawlings Machine, takes a totally different approach and echoes the title of Claude Brown’s book. Here, Harlem is less a geographical district of New York and more a vision, both spiritual and political - a promised land. Though it came out in 2009, as a Rawlings/Gillian Welch composition on the A Friend of a Friend album, it sounds like something Bob Dylan might have done round the time of Chimes of Freedom in the Civil Rights era. with a nod to Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come. In fact, musically and lyrically it is drenched in the past. Part of the final verse – “The Brazos rose, ain’t no more cane, we ground it down to sorghum” – is a deliberate lift from the tune Ain’t No More Cane, a work song of chain-gang prisoners cutting sugar cane along the River Brazos in Texas; recorded by Leadbelly and later by Lonnie Donegan and then Dylan and the Band. In this respect Bells of Harlem could be seen as a kind of modern spiritual reverie of hope and redemption.
It could also perhaps be heard as a comment on the Obama election. On a trip to visit my daughter in New York we went to Harlem - in part to see the Apollo - a few days before the November 2008 Presidential election. Amidst the street stalls selling 'Yes We Can' badges and t-shirts and shops with cakes with Obama’s face on them, there was also a sense of anticipation and excitement about what the election results might bring. On the night of November 4, at least, the church bells rang on 125th Street and beyond..
Link to song