“The rhymes of the riots were busy repeating”
A shift to minor chords…
It wouldn’t be all that long before Phil would be singing, with no little glee, about the ringing of revolution. As it was, it was hands that were being rung over the little bit of revolution that was occurring a few miles north of where Phil called home. For a couple of days and nights in the summer of 1965 Harlem burned. This was Phil’s response.
This isn’t so much a song about Black anger (for a start, no mention is made in the lyrics regarding the race of the rioters) than it is about White response – those “white silver tongues”.
Phil’s songs are littered with references to political dilly-dallying (think of Days of Decision in particular) and it is this which appears to have enraged Phil, far more than the violence and looting.
On July 16 1964 James Powell, a 15 year old Harlem native, was shot dead by an off-duty white police officer Thomas Gilligan. Powell, armed with a knife, slashed Gilligan across the forearm. Gilligan, drew his revolver, warned Powell, then shot him dead.
A hastily arranged march to protest the killing quickly got out of hand. Six days of unrest led to one death. some one thousand injured and four hundred and fifty arrests. And just as Harlem cooled then Rochester set alight, for three more days of violence. The inference being that what set Harlem ablaze wasn’t particular to Harlem. On the contrary, the Harlem riots would prove to be just the beginning.
Harlem in 1964 was 95% black, with 230,000 living in an area of Manhattan only 3 ½ miles square. With unemployment double that of the rest of New York and only 20% of local businesses black owned, the violence that burst onto the streets that summer at least had a reason.
Civil rights leaders who tried to calm the crowd were jeered. Those who tried to fan the flames were cheered. Flyers were distributed showing rioters how to make crude Molotov Cocktails. For all the condemnations that would follow it is Michael Harrington’s in The Village Voice that sticks out, condemning the rioters not for their resorting to violence, but in not being organised – “the tragedy of the last weekend thoroughly discredits all of the stories about a ‘black brotherhood’ in Harlem. If there were 400 – or 40 – trained terrorists there, more than 26 policemen would have been injured…”. He added “having done nothing about the causes of the riot, we can all wait and wonder when its re-enactment will take place” (Village Voice, July 23, 1964).
One such re-enactment took place the following year in the Watts district of Los Angeles, a riot that would make the Harlem riots seems like a pillow fight. In Watts the cry that went up as the rioters rioted and the looters looted was “Burn, baby, burn”. Back in Harlen William Epton (described by Time magazine as “Mao’s man in Harlem”) had addressed the mobs with speeches laced with violent rhetoric – “ We’re going to have to kill a lot of cops, a lot of judges, and we’ll have to go against their army”. Most famously he exhorted the crowd, with a heady mixture of pyromania and hip vernacular to “Burn, baby, burn!”. Epton was arrested and charged with “criminal anarchy” and faced 20 years in prison. His speech to the court in his defence perhaps paints a different picture, of a man willing to stand up to brutality, and far from start a riot, seek to control it – “I have been found ‘guilty’ of organising the Harlem community against police brutality…I have been found ‘guilty’ of standing up for the right of all men to be free…” There is also some doubt as to whether Epton ever said “Burn, baby, burn!” and his quote regarding the killing of police officers and judges was merely paraphrasing Lenin…no matter. Epton spent a year in prison after an exhaustive trial and appeal that saw such people as Amnesty International, Jean-Paul Sartre and The National Liberation Front of South Vietnam rally behind his cause. Freedom of speech and all that.
In effect the Harlem and Rochester riots were the battle for Civil Rights, for so long waged in the South, being waged in the North. Northern racism may not have been quite so open, but it has been argued that it was no less fierce. While Dr King was making a name for himself in the South, Malcolm X was doing similar in the North, albeit with a somewhat different tack. To him Harlem was just another “bitter, seething ghetto” – “You name the city. Black social dynamite is in Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Los Angeles…the black man’s anger is there, fermenting”. (The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 1965).
It was undoubtedly something that Phil struggled to deal with. While he would turn his fury onto Mississippi and tell it to bugger right off, he would not do the same of New York State. Rather his tone, as evidenced here, is rather mournful, sad at what he was seeing, and rather than merely lash out, he was trying to understand.
There is no doubt where his sympathies lay – “So wrong, so wrong, but we’ve been down so long” – but there is that second verse – “No one knows how it started” – that is somewhat troublesome. As was Phil’s way, it is perhaps safe to assume that this would have been written pretty soon after the event. The recording however would have taken place several months later, and to suggest that “no-one knows how it started” and worse, that once the trouble started “then it no longer mattered” is at best taking poetic licence too far and at worst just plain wrong. And yet, for all that, it remains a beautiful song, delivered with care a dignity, highlighting just how far Phil had come as a performer and writer. It’s power comes from it’s restraint. It suggests blame rather than merely castigating the guilty, for once Phil does away with the specifics and allows enough nuance to mean it could be set in it could be Anytown USA. More than that it has echoes in the riots in the UK in 1981 and the English riots of summer before last – police brutality and a long hot summer are a heady mix regardless of geography.
In his essay The Times They Are A’Changin’ : The Music Of Protest, Robert A. Rosenstone wrote that in In The Heat Of The Summer Phil was “partially sympathetic to the ghetto-dwellers’ actions” before comdemning Phil; “he still misjudged their attitudes by ascribing to them feelings of shame – rather than satisfaction – in the aftermath of the descruction”. I feel that Rosenstone missess the point somewhat. To my ears at least, the people for whom Phil was addressing in the line “shame was replacing the anger” wasn’t the rioters per se, but the wider community. Unlike the caricatures of the South, Phil was addressing the people and places that he knew, or perhaps felt as if he knew. Perhaps it is that that makes this song such a success and one which he didn’t try to over simplify.