Bells of Harlem

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


  1. Thanks for writing about my home neighborhood, Geoff! I hadn't known this song, thanks for not writing about something more obvious/overdone, like "Angel of Harlem" by u2:)

    Happy new year from Harlem!

  2. Happy New Year to you, Desiree -I didnt know Harlem was your home neighbourhood.

  3. Geoff, thank you for this great start to 2011 reading your column! Harlem is my favourite places in the United States. I also think there is something here in the song about the idea of a promised land that has been part of African American culture for more than 150 years. During slavery, it was Canada and since Emancipation it was the Northern States, especially Harlem. I think the song refers back to this idea somewhat. And I think you're right that Obama represented another kind of promised land too, and that the song refers to this 2008 moment.

    Also, nominations opened today for the Bloggies. Which seems to be an even better award than the other one. I nominated you in these categories: Music, Travel, Best Writing, New Blog, and Blog of the Year.

    Happy New Year!

  4. Hey thank you Laura. I am not sure what happened in the 2010 awards-the blog seemed to have got deleted in the final count.

  5. Geoff, some of your description of Harlem - using the lyrics, in paragraphs 2 and 3 - reminded me of one of my favorite paintings, by the African American Harlem artist, Jacob Lawrence: http://negroartist.com/negro%20artist/jacob%20lawrence/pages/Jacob%20Lawrence,%20This%20is%20Harlem,%201943_jpg.htm

    It is called "This is Harlem" and it is from 1943.

  6. Here's the Drifters song Geoff mentioned - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuSCex9ZAws.......

  7. Wow, I had no idea of the complicated history of the Drifters - all the different groups that have splintered and continue to call themselves by the Drifters name. After you mentioned that there were different line-ups, I went and read about the history. Fascinating!

  8. Love the Bill Withers song - here it is for everyone else: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpn4D5L67QI

  9. That's odd, about the other competition. But the same thing happened to another friend of mine. I suspect it's a unprofessional organisation and the results were fixed from day one! I'm more hopeful that the Bloggies will be professional: http://2011.bloggi.es/

  10. That's amazing about some iteration of the Drifters being in a country pub along Hadrians Wall!! Speaking of which, any songs about Hadrian's Wall you might write about?

  11. Aretha Franklin's version of Spanish Harlem is LOADS better than Ben E King's: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BAQAUuRlbxE& :) Aretha can take any song and completely ownit.

  12. I love the book Manchild in the Promised Land. One of the best books ever.

  13. I'm not really aware of any songs about Hadrians Wall unfortunately, Eva!

  14. Wow, I had no idea that the song lifts from "Ain't No More Cane" - that's a kind of latter-day slave spiritual (in that slaves were 'freed' only to be enslaved again in peonage and chain gangs), and slave spirituals were adapted as Civil Rights anthems, so I think you're exactly right to point to the Civil Rights era songs (Chimes of Freedom and A Change is Gonna Come) as a comparison point for these. Both this song and the 1960s ones adapted the songs of U.S. slavery I think. There is a real historical memory at work. Thanks for this illuminating column entry!

    And happy new year from California!

  15. Geoff! I love how your blog can mention the Dave Rawlings Machine and Immortal Technique all in one column. Eclecticism perfected!

  16. Geoff, thought you might enjoy the footage I shot in Harlem (125th street) on the election night of 2008 - it includes scenes outside the Apollo. No church bells are audible in this documentary but I'm sure they were ringing in Harlem somewhere!


  17. I'm a fan of Laura Nyro's "Spanish Harlem" - it's less cheesy than other versions of that song I think......

  18. Geoff, as another lesser known Harlem song, you might like Harlem River Blues by Justin Townes Earle.

  19. Here are the great lyrics for anyone who wants them.......

    Look at the world, it's waking up
    I couldn't sleep for dreaming
    My weary soul, is finally home
    I had the strangest feeling
    This is the dawn, the break of day
    After the midnight pardon
    These ringing ears, have waited years
    To hear the bells of Harlem

    Far down the streets, I see the signs
    The crowd is breathing faster
    Some must have walked, a hundred blocks
    I see the flocks and pastors
    Oh what a time, to be alive
    Tears of the past forgotten
    It's been a long, and lonely night
    I hear the bells of Harlem

    They ring, they ring, they sing, they sing
    The darkest hour is passed
    They ring, they ring, they sing, they sing
    A little joy at long last
    The brightest rose, ain't no more cane
    We ground it down to sorghum
    We couldn't stop, the freedom train
    I hear the bells of Harlem

  20. It's so interesting that the last lines talk about the freedom train - which obviously summons images of the underground railroad during slavery, but also the famous Freedom Train of the 1940s. For more on this see http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/njh/PaulRobeson/Activist/PRFreedom.htm - which also includes Langston Hughes's poem about the train (he was a Harlem resident too).

  21. This is really interesting music - love the way it combines country, folk, bluegrass and the 1960s/1970s! And the strings on this are just gorgeous.

  22. I saw them play a couple of years ago - it was like being in the South sitting on their front porch, amazing live performance.

  23. I love the high register harmonies of these two singers!

  24. This feels a lot like Louis Armstrong. Beautiful! I've never been to Harlem but this makes me want to go.

  25. It's hard to tell from your column what you really feel about throwback music Geoff - music that ignores trends and the passage of time, in this instance to harness a mid 60s sound. I tend to love it - that it refuses to be swept along. But I know some people find it a bit stuck in a rut, refusing to reimagine music for a different era.

  26. No one else hear Simon and Garfunkel in this song? It even has string arrangements by Jimmie Haskell (who did Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as well as Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”).

  27. This has such an eerie, spell-like quality. Love it!

  28. Hmmm, yes Geoff, I can feel Bob Dylan hovering over this whole album actually. Although "Bells of Harlem" is more "It's a Wonderful World" than any specific Dylan song I think. But I did think while listening to this album that A Friend of a Friend is what Dylan's Together Through Life could/should have been.

  29. I don't know, it's very strange to me that this song about Harlem (a black, Northern urban environment) is being sung with such an old Nashville grandeur. By a white southerner. In country style. Geoff and other commentators have previously written about the idea of style suiting a place. Echoing the natural sounds of that place. But perhaps there is also a genre of music that is entirely at odds with the place it is about. And this, for me, would fit into that genre - because while I associate jazz, blues and hip hop with Harlem, southern Country bluesgrass stuff is as far removed from Harlem (racially, culturally, historically, regionally) as you can get!

  30. The coda on this is mesmerising, I love how it just trails off.

  31. Bit too much religion in this song for me - it's a bit like a benediction....

  32. To me, Rawlings sounds like a slightly twangier Loudon Wainwright:)

  33. I agree (somewhat) with K.B. I'm not sure the song really feels like it's about Harlem, as opposed to any neighborhood. And in an interview, Rawlings was pretty clear that he didn't set out to write about Harlem in particular. He wrote the melody, it made Gillian Welch think of the phrase "bells of Harlem" and then they pulled together various lyrics. It's a fascinating song but maybe an example of a song about any-old-place that happens to be about Harlem nominally......

    Here's the interview quote, which is from here: http://blurt-online.com/features/view/513/
    "I started that one in the wintertime - either really late '07 or early in ‘08. The melody just popped into my head one day, so I sat down and started playing some chords to see where it might go. Over the course of an hour or so, I came up with the chorus and as I got to the end, Gillian showed up. She heard what I was doing and said, "Bells of Harlem. That's what that makes me think of." I thought that was cool, so we had a title in mind and the music to it. That's all there was. I was sure when I started playing it that I wanted that kind of walking feeling to it. It also had kind of an oddly optimistic lilt to it even though it felt pretty lonesome. I worked on the lyric for a while, and that song got written and re-written several times. When I finally sat down to record it, I took bits of each of the different re-writes - lyrics from this version, chords from another version - and pulled them all together for the final take. All of the sudden it was there and it was right, and that was the first time I really saw the song".

  34. I heard them playing in Louisville in December 2009, including "Bells of Harlem" and they did some Bob Dylan covers as well, and to be honest you wouldn't have known which was a cover and which was the new "Bells of Harlem" if Dylan's songs weren't so well known already.......

    The show ended with “This Land is Your Land” which was fun.

  35. I disagree with K.B. - as Geoff pointed out, the song echoes chaingang music, which itself echoed slave spirituals! And the 'sound of Harlem' definitely includes black history, whether slavery or chaingangs or the idea of a 'freedom train' and certainly the Civil Rights era protest music that this song also echoes...... It might not be an obvious Harlem song (like the Alicia Keys/Jay Z song "Empire State of Mind" which references Harlem a lot) in that it's not sung by a black artist and isn't Hip Hop, but it's a Harlem sound for sure - and after all, the population of Harlem became majority black when black SOUTHERNERS moved North during the Great Migration of the early 20th century (to escape chaingangs, mob violence, segregation, and the neoslavery of peonage), and so the southern sound of this song suits Harlem perfectly: people often hear a southern sound, like folk, and think 'white' and in turn 'racist' but the south has a strong black music tradition as well - and Harlem has a strong black southern (originally) identity and population. So there is nothing jarring at all about a southern sound in a song about Harlem - the South has a black music tradition, and Harlem has a black southern tradition!

    Hope that all made sense. As a black southern woman, I feel strongly about this!

  36. Plus, the song is SOUL as well as country; totally Harlem-esque:)

  37. Wow, this is just a revision of Dylan's ‘Girl from the North Country’, isn't it?

  38. I get the sense it might not be your sort of thing, Geoff, but if you're keeping a list of songs about Harlem, there is the very recent Kanye West track, 'Christmas in Harlem'

  39. And there is Louis Armstrong's “Christmas Night in Harlem”

  40. There is Cab Calloway’s “The Man From Harlem” and Benny Carter's "Harlem Wednesday"

  41. Geoff, thought you'd enjoy one of my favorite poems, which explains the connection between Harlem and its music at length.

    Harlem: A Poem
    By Walter Dean Myers

    They took the road in Waycross, Georgia
    Skipped over the tracks in East St. Louis
    Took the bus from Holly Springs
    Hitched a ride from Gee’s Bend
    Took the long way through Memphis
    The third deck down from Trinidad
    A wrench of heart from Goree Island
    A wrench of heart from Goree Island
    To a place called
    Harlem was a promise
    Of a better life,
    of a place where a man
    Didn’t have to know his place
    Simply because
    He was Black
    They brought a call
    A song
    First heard in the villages of
    Calls and songs and shouts
    Heavy hearted tambourine rhythms
    Loosed in the hard city
    Like a scream torn from the throat
    Of an ancient clarinet
    A new sound, raucous and sassy
    Cascading over the asphalt village
    Breaking against the black sky over
    1-2-5 Street
    Announcing Hallelujah
    Riffing past resolution
    Yellow, tan, brown, black, red
    Green, gray, bright
    Colors loud enough to be heard
    Light on asphalt streets
    Sun yellow shirts on burnt umber
    Demanding to be heard
    Sending out warriors
    From streets known to be
    Mourning still as a lone radio tells us how
    Jack Johnson
    Joe Louis
    Sugar Ray
    Is doing with our hopes.
    We hope
    We pray
    Our black skins
    Reflecting the face of God
    In storefront temples
    Jive and Jehovah artists
    Lay out the human canvas
    The mood indigo
    A chorus of summer herbs
    Of mangoes and bar-b-que
    Of perfumed sisters
    Hip strutting past
    Fried fish joints
    On Lenox Avenue in steamy August
    A carnival of children
    People in the daytime streets
    Ring-a-levio warriors
    Stickball heroes
    Hide-and-seek knights and ladies
    Waiting to sing their own sweet songs
    Living out their own slam-dunk dreams
    For the coming of the blues
    A weary blues that Langston knew
    And Countee sung
    A river of blues
    Where Du Bois waded
    And Baldwin preached
    There is lilt
    A language of darkness
    Darkness known
    Darkness sharpened at Mintons
    Darkness lightened at the Cotton Club
    Sent flying from Abyssinian Baptist
    To the Apollo.
    The uptown A
    Rattles past 110th Street
    Unreal to real
    Relaxing the soul
    Shango and Jesus
    Asante and Mende
    One people
    A hundred different people
    Huddled masses
    And crowded dreams
    Blocks, bricks
    Fat, round woman in a rectangle
    Sunday night gospel
    “Precious Lord…take my hand,
    Lead me on, let me stand…”
    Caught by a full lipped
    Full hipped Saint
    Washing collard greens
    In a cracked porcelain sink
    Backing up Lady Day on the radio
    Brother so black and blue
    Patting a wide foot outside the
    Too hot Walk-up
    You ought to find the guys who told you
    you could play some checkers
    ‘cause he done lied to you!”
    Cracked reed and soprano sax laughter
    Floats over
    a fleet of funeral cars
    In Harlem
    Sparrows sit on fire escapes
    Outside rent parties
    To learn the tunes.
    In Harlem
    The wind doesn’t blow past Smalls
    It stops to listen to the sounds
    Serious business
    A poem, rhapsody tripping along
    Striver’s Row
    Not getting it’s metric feel soiled
    On the well-swept walks
    Hustling through the hard rain at two o’clock
    In the morning to its next gig.
    A huddle of horns
    And a tinkle of glass
    A note
    Handed down from Marcus to Malcolm
    To a brother
    Too bad and too cool to give his name.
    Sometimes despair
    Makes the stoops shudder
    Sometimes there are endless depths of pain
    Singing a capella on street corners
    And sometimes not.
    Sometimes it is the artist
    looking into the mirror
    Painting a portrait of his own heart.
    Memories of feelings
    Of place
    A journey on the A train
    That started on the banks of the Niger
    And has not ended

  42. There is a weird, minstrel like song by Country Joe (of Country Joe and the Fish) called "The Harlem Song." Not sure what to make of it though.

  43. Don't forget Harlem Shuffle-The Rolling Stones. It's a good song, if a bit odd to hear 5 very white Brits singing about Harlem.....

  44. I wrote a song about Harlem. It should be sung to the tune of “Spanish Harlem.”


  45. Speaking of white Brits, there is Breakfast In Harlem, written for the British show Transatlantic Rhythm. Although I think the writers were American (Ray Henderson, Gerald Marks and Irving Caesar)

  46. I had forgotten about the Country Joe and the Fish one -no, I'm not sure what to make of it either!
    Thats a good comparison, Jim-the recorded version with strings and drums is rather different to the live one here, more waltz-like.
    I thought your comments really interesting, Erika- in his book Claude Brown recounts going to stay with relatives in the South, Carolina I think.

  47. Geoff! Is the photograph of the Apollo yours? If so, is that your arm pointing up at it in the bottom left?:)

  48. Yes, it was South Carolina that he describes.... his parents had moved North from there.

  49. Indeed it is Tiffanye! I have similar ones for the Cafe Wha? and the Bitter End from the same visit to New York!

  50. Well then let's have a column about Greenwich Village please, so we can catch more glimpses of your arm!:)

  51. I'll try and get round to Greenwich Village!

  52. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  53. I came here on a google link from looking for more about Dave Rawlings' song but this whole article and the comments have been a real nice. Having never been to Harlem but enjoyed some of the music from and about it it's been great to hear more about both. Thanks all!