The Happy Heaven of Harlem

The Migration Series, Panel 1 (Jacob Lawrence, 1941):
“During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans”
“Why Stay in Dixie?” Political cartoon by Black artist Romare Bearden
in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper, June 20, 1936

Langston Hughes, the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance, reading his poem “I, Too”:

The Harlem Renaissance was the artistic flowering of the Great Migration. As Duke Ellington wrote in “Drop Me Off in Harlem”:

I don’t want your Dixie,
You can keep your Dixie,
There’s no one down in Dixie

Who can take me ‘way from my hot Harlem.
Harlem has those Southern skies,
They’re in my baby’s smile,

I idolize my baby’s eyes
And classy uptown style.

The music of the Harlem Renaissance drew from the commercialized blues of performers like Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and Josie Miles; from ragtime, jazz, and the Black musical-theatrical tradition — music like that for the first full-length Broadway musical by a Black composer (and with an all-Black cast) was In Dahomey, by Will Marion Cook, Antonin Dvorak’s former student at the National Conservatory.

Another hugely successful Black musical was the 1921 Shuffle Along, composed by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. The show was revived on Broadway in 2016.

The show’s composers, Sissle and Blake, singing together (minstrel songs!)

The muse of the Harlem Renaissance, Ethel Waters, in a show-within-a-show in the 1929 movie musical On With the Show (in other words, a meta-narrative, or a work of art that is self-consciously about art itself). Note that she is costumed in stereotypical Southern black field-hand garb, which she slyly dismisses in the number below, “Underneath the Harlem Moon.”

Another famous Harlem Renaissance singer and actress, Florence Mills:

Paul Robeson in a film clip from Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play The Emperor Jones, the role that launched his international stage career.

The Renaissance also included concert music by composers like Nora Holt, the music critic of the Black newspaper the Amsterdam News.

As Steven Blier notes in his article “Harlem, Billy Strayhorn . . . and me,” Harlem was also legendary for its tolerance of LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people. Blier suggests that the following songs are signifying — i.e., that they contain coded messages of LGBTQ+ acceptance.

“The Happy Heaven of Harlem” (Cole Porter), a place where “all lovin’ is free.”

Underneath the Harlem moon, picking cotton may be taboo, but not “the kind of love that satisfies.”

Rhiannon Giddens explains how Ethel Waters changed the lyrics.

Alberta Hunter singing “My Castle’s Rockin’,” which Blier notes “sounds like a lesbian anthem.”

The great Bessie Smith, singing some rather racy lyrics:

“In Harlem’s Araby” by Bessie Smith’s pianist, Porter Grainger, with lyrics by Fats Waller. As Anthony Tommasini notes:

The song ended up best known as a jazz instrumental, but the seldom-heard lyrics hinted at the people you’d encounter in Harlem: “Oh, they’ve got women just like men, ’cause they act-a just like brothers.” The theme of gender fluidity was made even more explicit in a playful verse that Grainger sang on a 1924 recording he made with Waller:

In Harlem’s Araby
You can’t tell “B” from “G.”
There’s nothing in the Orient
Like Harlem’s Araby.

“Worried Blues,” sung by Gladys Bentley, cross-dressing lesbian and Harlem Renaissance royalty.

More Call and Response

The musical forms brought to the Americas by slaves from west Africa were generally functional: that is, they were used to aid in ritual, work, daily life, and war. Antiphonal singing also facilitated communication across distances.

As the Malinke people of West Africa say, “There is no movement without rhythm.” Notice that rhythm aids with the many functions of rural life.

You can hear the antiphonal quality in this work song of the Mbuti people (Congo).

A Hausa call-and-response:

In the 1964 film Zulu, about the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift in Zululand (present-day South Africa), the use of antiphonal music in war is highlighted. The Zulus use music to prepare for war, to intimidate the enemy, to wage war, and, in the end, in a moving scene, to salute the victors.

In Avengers Infinity War, T’challa leads the Dora Milaje in a call and response. Do you think the filmmakers did their research?

In the 1997 film Amistad, about the illegal capture of a group of Mende people from Sierra Leone, one of the group dies in prison. His comrades send up a call-and-response chant as a funeral ritual (T/W: death, dead man):

What do you think the purpose of call-and-response form is in religious music?

Call and response in the folk spiritual “Job, Job.”

Another version:

Call and response in a work camp song.

Call and response in a prison work song.

David Guetta and Nicki Minaj sampled “Rosie” in their song “Hey Mama.”

The song was also recently adapted by three white folksingers, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan, who perform together as I’m With Her, as “Be My Husband.” What do you think about this usage?

In August Wilson’s 1987 play The Piano Lesson, a character speaks of his stint in Parchman and sings a work song.

August Wilson was inspired to write his play, set in 1936, by this painting, “The Piano Lesson,” by Romare Bearden (1911-1988).

You can read the complete play here.