“Harlem” by Bill Withers (1971)

One of many things I love about Bill Withers is his descriptive lyricism. One listen to 1971’s “Harlem” and you are transported to pre-gentrification Uptown. This might be easier for someone like me to picture because I actually lived in a shitty apartment in pre-gentrification Uptown (137 W. 137th Street, to be exact). Even if you’re unfamiliar with New York City (as I assume Bill Withers was at the time since he grew up in West Virginia and “Harlem” was on his very first album), you can imagine it being a humid summer day with no air conditioning, sweating yourself half to death in a tiny apartment. You can see the (mostly black and brown) bodies swaying side to side, tightly packed in at a lounge or a house party, losing themselves in dance on a Saturday night. You can picture those same bodies packed into a church service early the next morning, dressed in their Sunday finest and listening to a smooth-talking con man disguised as a preacher. It’s also pretty amazing that Withers is able to write so evocatively about a place and time without dropping one obvious signifier about Harlem besides the fact that the song takes place in Harlem-not even a street number. Or the subway. Or the Apollo. “Harlem” is a fantastic song that is greatly underappreciated when it comes to Big Apple anthems.


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