The Call of Harlem

Juke Box Love Song (Langston Hughes)

I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
Taxis, subways,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.

(Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, p227).

Even 13 year old Billie Holiday knew she had to go to Harlem. This New York neighbourhood exerted a powerful attraction on African Americans of all backgrounds in the early decades of the 20th Century. In the 1920s Harlem became the home of the New Negro Movement in the US, the first civil rights movement embodied in organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) or the National Urban League, and a focal point for black culture – in politics, literature, art and music; a phenomenon which also became known as the Harlem Renaissance (officially inaugurated in 1925). Originally a 17th century Dutch settlement, Harlem had experienced several migratory influxes, but in the early decades of the 20th Century it was the main destination for the Great Migration of African Americans who were escaping oppression and Jim Crow (seggregation) laws in the South for better opportunities in the North (Chicago was another important destination).


Nowhere quite captured the imagination and the spirit of the time as Harlem did. It attracted black intellectuals and artists (‘niggeratti’ as coined by Zora Neale Hurston) — writers like Langston Hughes, artists like Aaron Douglas, musicians like Duke Ellington – but it also attracted ordinary African Americans struggling for survival and respect. Here I have gathered some impressions of Harlem.


Elmer Simms Campbell. A night club map of Harlem, 1932.

During the 1920s and 1930s Harlem embodied the new spirit of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, with a significance that reached beyond the African American community, New York and the US. Here the best musicians played and swing was born. It was the hottest night-spot and there was no shortage of night-clubs as we can see in this 1932 image: the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, Small’s Paradise and countless other clubs, ballrooms, theatres and speakeasies attracted (white) party goers from downtown New York -including many famous Hollywood and Broadway stars like Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable or Tallulah Bankhead. Harlem provided the best opportunity to savour the freedom of the Jazz Age.

Romare Bearden (artist) was a regular visitor at the Savoy Ballroom in the ‘30s:

‘The best dancing in the world was there, and the best music…You’d want to be either in Harlem then or in Paris. These were the two places where things were happening’. (Malone, Jazz Music in Motion).

IntroductionForaBluesQueen(UptownatSavoy)fromJazzSeries1979,R Bearden
Introduction for a blues queen (Uptown at Savoy), Jazz Series, 1979. By Romare Bearden

Norma Miller (the Queen of Swing) in a recent BBC interview:

‘Harlem was the epitome of a people who had found a certain freedom, so anybody who could walk, run, jive…they came to Harlem. It was the one place where a black person could feel he had a freedom’.

(Norma Miller, BBC interview February 2014)

Duke Ellington

Take the ‘A’ Train (video)

Duke Ellington orchestraThis song was written in 1939 by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington referring to the New York subway line that connects Brooklyn with Harlem, it became Duke Ellington’s band’s signature tune. The Duke and his band play it here in a 1943 version for the film Reveille with Beverly.

‘Harlem, to our minds, did indeed have the world’s most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there.’

(Ellington, Music is My Mistress, p36)

Getting to Harlem

Norma Miller’s mother, Zalama Barker, was only 15 when she emigrated from Barbados to New York, then a two-week ship voyage:

‘She was on the way to New York –that magnificent city she had heard so much about was going to be her home. She was especially excited to see the place she had heard most about, the place where all of the colored people went – Harlem.’

(Miller, Swingin’ at the Savoy p.5)

Billie Holiday describes her arrival in her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues:

And Grandpop put me on the train.  I had a ticket to Long Branch, where Mom was going to meet me. But as soon as I got on the train by myself I decided, damn Long Branch, I was going to get to see Harlem some way. So I took off the big tag, decided I’d get off the train in New York, take the subway to Harlem, have myself a time, and then contact my mother.

I was only 13 years old, but I was a hip kitty. I was travelling light – except for that basket of chicken [from Grandma] – but I travelled.

(Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues).

Billie Holliday experienced the ugliest side of Harlem before she became a star, staying at a children’s shelter and prison at different times.


Ralph Ellison (writer). In his novel Invisible Man, he describes his protagonist’s impressions when he first arrives in Harlem from the South.

‘I had never seen so many black people against a background of brick buildings, neon signs, plate glass and roaring traffic —not even on trips I had made with the debating team to New Orleans, Dallas or Birmingham. They were everywhere. So many, and moving along with so much tension and noise that I wasn’t sure whether they were about  to celebrate a holiday or join in a street fight. There were even black girls behind the counters of the Five and Ten as I passed. Then at the street intersection I had the shock of seeing a black policeman directing traffic – and there were white drivers in the traffic who obeyed his signals as though it was the most natural thing in the world. Sure I had heard of it, but this was real. My courage returned. This really was Harlem…The vet had been right: For me this was not a city of realities, but of dreams; perhaps because I had always thought of my life as being confined to the South.

(Ellison, Invisible Man, p159).

Harlem street

Many more followed this journey to Harlem:  Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker (although Baker was not so impressed and soon moved to Paris) and a very long list.

Harlem Mecca of the New Negro

Harlem was swinging’ – but not everything was swing. The New Negro Movement was lead by figures like W.E.B DuBois, head of the NAACP, and philosopher Alain Locke. They believed a new Negro literature and art were the means for African Americans to achieve equal status and rights.

Harlem Mecca of the New Negro – Survey Graphic (March 1925), Ed. Alain Locke

Cover of ‘Harlem Mecca of the New Negro’, Survey Graphic March 1925 issue.

Alain Locke in his 1925 essay ‘Harlem’:

‘without pretense to their political significance, Harlem had the same role to play for the New Negro as Ireland has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the new Czechoslovakia’.

(Locke in Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue).

Was Harlem a slum?  Harlem, which had become a predominantly black neighbourhood by the 1920s, offered opportunities and possibilities for black Americans that were unavailable in other parts of the US, however, poverty was a widespread problem, as is evident in any of the personal accounts of that time.

David Levering Lewis:

‘Harlem’s statistics were dire…What the statistics obscured was the mood of the universe north of Central Park. Whatever its contradictions…the one certainty almost all who lived there shared was that Harlem was no slum. Ghetto, maybe. Slum, never. […] Jobs and rent money might be hard to come by, and whites might own more than 80 percent of the community’s wealth, but the ordinary people of Harlem –not just civil rights grandees and exhilarated talents from the provinces— exuded a proud self-confidence that, once lost, would not reappear’.

(Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue p109).


Harlem’s greatest legacy is probably still its music (and dance):

Ella Fitzgerald sings Drop me Off in Harlem, by Duke Ellington

And who wouldn’t want to go to Harlem if we could?


Take the ‘A’ Train (Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, 1939)

Drop me Off in Harlem (Duke Ellington, 1933)


Ellington, Duke, Music is my Mistress. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973.

Ellison, Ralph Invisible Man. New York: Penguin, 2014.

Holiday, Billie, Lady Sings the Blues (translation Iris Menéndez). Barcelona: Tuesquets Editores, 1990.

Langston, Hughes, Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, Random House Inc., 1959.

Levering Lewis, David, When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Malone, Jaqui, ‘Jazz Music in Motion’, The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, Chapter 18. Ed. Robert G. O’Meally. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Miller, Norma, Swingin’ at the Savoy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.

Miller, Norma, BBC interview, Feb2014

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