I will be researching the origins of Lindy hop in Harlem: early press materials, the history of the dancers and the venues where they danced. The treasures of the NYPL await (this library even has its own film).
It’s not all going to be archives, there will also be an escapade to LindyFest in Houston, one of the major swing festivals in the US.
I hope to come back with lots of new stories for Atlantic Lindy Hopper, watch this space.
I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
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).
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’.
This 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).
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
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):
As I was sitting having a beer in a leafy beer garden in southern Galicia this summer, while attending a meeting of the local swing association, I came to reflecting about globalization, universal human passions for music and dance, and the mysterious and circuitous turns in history which have led to this meeting taking place at all…as you do. The place is the Aturuxo bar in Bueu, a small village on the coast of one of Galicia’s southern bays. It is a lovely early summer afternoon and we are sitting around a table in the shade of the garden, surrounded by the countryside. The Aturuxo is in fact a great concert venue and the alma mater of Lindy Hop in Galicia. This is where Jorge and Elena started their first Lindy Hop classes when they returned after living in Porto (Portugal) where they had been bitten bad by the lindy hop bug. They started with a small weekly practice group in 2012 and now, in just three years, it has grown into a busy swing dance school (Swing On Vigo) and has spawned an independent Galician swing association which was formally created last year (Ghastas Pista Swing). We were there to organize the association’s annual swing festival work programme and to attend a concert by Alo Django, a local swing band from Santiago de Compostela.
I think it is a fair bet to imagine that there was no Lindy Hop or other swing dancing occurring in Bueu in the late 1930s or ‘40s. For a start the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and tough post-war period under Franco’s dictatorship would have been a dampener on the swing spirit. Bueu would have been a relatively remote fishing village. I would be interested to know if swing music was popular at the time in the larger cities of Vigo or Coruña, but it is unlikely that a group of lindy hoppers would have gathered to dance to a live swing band at their local bar, as was the case today. So I looked into this a little, there isn’t much material on the history of swing in Spain, but if you would like to know more this is the best source I have found article by Jorge García. It suggests that even back then Barcelona was the main jazz route entry in Spain and that while the fox trot and Charleston made it, Lindy Hop would not have been widely known or danced. Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers did a couple of tours of Europe in the late 30s, fitting in England, France, Switzerland and even a visit to Dublin, but did not reach Spain (which would have been in the midst of the civil war as mentioned). I also doubt even Frankie Manning (Lindy Hop inspiration) had an inkling of how far his legacy would reach when he was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1980s and the Lindy Hop revival started in the US and Sweden. Ah the marvels of a globally connected world.
This global passion for swing speaks of the joy its music and dance transmits, which veritably ‘hooks’ lindy hoppers from all kinds of backgrounds. Alo Django provided us with some swingin’ tunes — crazy beat, foot stomping versions of All of Me, Undecided, Sweet Georgia Brown and others, which had us hopping in the grass well into nightfall. Alo Django are Xabier Mera (voice and guitar), David Tato (guitar), Quim Farinha (violin), Alfonso Calvo (double bass), often in collaboration with Gail Brevitt (tap and voice), and have been very supportive of the local swing scene. They recently organized the II Foliada Swing in Santiago for example, including a film screening, dance workshops, and a joint tap and swing shim sham on stage.
The route to the swing (dance) revival in Galicia has been circuitous and also follows the ebbs and flows of emigration and return: via Portugal and the vibrant swing community that Abeth Farag (US) helped to create over the last 10 years, via Jorge (from Bueu) and Elena (from Madrid) who after living in Porto have gone on to work full time at fostering and growing a local swing scene in Galicia; via Ireland and a half Irish-Spanish ‘migrant and back again’ (me) who started dancing in Dublin and has been doing her best to continue dancing and to share her love of swing dancing in Santiago de Compostela; via Carlos Tomico whose travels brought him to Scotland, Madrid (where he caught the swing bug), back to Galicia where he has been actively involved in Ghastas Pista Swing and teaching in Santiago, and are now taking him abroad again to Portugal; via Leti González, originally from Madrid, who has sailed the seven seas before docking in Vigo and getting on board the Swing On team – and also some really enthusiastic local lindy hoppers who discovered swing in this very location, like Daniel Pérez and Laura Rosales, current Treasurer and President of Ghastas Pista Swing Association. The people behind the local swing scene do paint a picture of globalization at its best, that is, bringing together people who love to dance!
And at the same time the swing scene in Galicia is very much local, fuelled by Estrella Galicia and tapas, dancing on the beach or in narrow old town streets, gathering for a Galician winter stew (cocido gallego) or shim shamming on the pier or in front of the Santiago cathedral.
This was the Frankie 100 celebration in the Rías Baixas (the southern coast of Galicia) with the students of Swing On School.
Although the passion for swing music and Lindy Hop is now global and goes across all kinds of cultures –from the US, UK, Sweden, Spain, Korea, South America, Israel, South Africa…it also takes on specific forms in each locality. I have lived and experienced three different scenes mainly – Dublin, Barcelona and Galicia. In Galicia it is developing hand in hand with great bars, live music, and the special ‘swing vermouth’ modality, which combines a pre-lunch drink and tapa with dancing, usually outdoors. In Barcelona, thanks to the great weather, there is outdoor dancing every weekend in plazas and parks (but here sans tapas). The scene there has developed mainly thanks to very active swing dance schools and teachers (now nearly 20 schools in the Barcelona region, some with hundreds of students) which have contributed to one of the largest most exciting swing communities in Europe. In Ireland the scene has grown mainly as an evening activity in pubs – because what other kind of venue can you find in Ireland??- but as a generally beer-free form of pub-going (which doesn’t usually go down well with the pubs). It ends up being all your friends’ houses where you meet up to dance and party (Anita Walshe, thinking of your place especially). There are sometimes swing picnics, which are a nice Irish family-friendly version of the ‘swing vermouth’ where people bring along home-baked cakes, oh and there is usually some kind of roof, just in case.
These are the scenes that I am familiar with, but I can only imagine that the Lindy Hop community in Sweden or Korea have their own unique forms of swingin’. What is perhaps special about the global Lindy Hop community is that we are also very closely connected, frequently attending events abroad and finding fellow Lindy Hop addicts where we least expected. As Norma Miller said in her memoirs ‘Although Harlem created it, the Lindy belongs to the world’.
The swing community could not grow without great venues that support it by facilitating, a) a space to dance and b) promoting local swing musicians and events. In the south of Galicia the Aturuxo, Carycar club or Taberna O Rincón, and in Santiago O Ateneo 30, Gallaecia in Armis and Dado Dada club have been essential allies and great places to dance.
Let the swing spirit continue 😉
Note: this post is by no means a complete guide of swing in Galicia – I write about the people and places I know personally, so if you feel I have left anything important out…well just add it to the comments and let me know.
In fact, I would really like to know your views – what do you think attracts people to swing and Lindy Hop nowadays? What is unique about your scene?