Each of Myers' brief, mostly free verse poems is from a (fictional) resident of Harlem. The characters could be living today or any time in the past 100 years. They are young and old, employed and not, in menial and skilled jobs, artistic, religious, criminal. They give a little history in their story, but it's not the dry stuff: Clara Brown danced at the Cotton Club, Homer Grimes lost his eyesight after a beating in the South, John Reese played in the Negro Leagues. Myers uses as his inspiration a collection of old photographs that are interspersed among the poems. (The cover of this book is a picture of Duke Ellington and two of his singers. The photo below is on the back of the book and is Myers [on the right] and his brother George in 1947. I retrieved this photo from Harlem World.)
Some of my particular favorites -- an outstanding marriage of poem and reader:
- Willie Arnold, alto sax player, who shout-sings his "be-bops" between the driving rhythm of his verse.
- Christopher Lomax, who watches his daughter soliciting on the corner outside his window. The grief in his voice stops up your throat.
- Delia Pierce, hairdresser, who dishes on everyone as she serves a customer from shampoo to blow dry. "It's not like me to run my mouth," she says. Not!
- Frank Griffin and Lemuel Burr, both veterans, who quietly and matter-of-factly tell the story of how Homer Grimes ran afoul a southern sheriff after serving in World War II.
Blessedly, there are many, many readers. New voices are heard for each poem, which gives the collage that is the collection an important additional dimension. These poems would simply not pop the way they do if they were all read by the same narrator.
Each reader (all named below) says their name at the very beginning of the book -- which I'm pretty sure is supposed to help you figure out which narrator is reading which poem. Alas, I was listening to most of this in the car -- where the opportunity to go back and forth was a bit tricky. But, as a representative example of all their considerable talents, I recognized Dion Graham's voice when he was reading. His portrayals demonstrate the broad range that really good voice actors have. His Willie Arnold was all spiky energy and explosive jazz; then, when the hustler Sam DuPree, comes into your ears he's a smooth-talking jivemaster with a hiphop delivery ("I am sweet Sam DuPree, and all the women love me."). The photo that accompanies Sam's poem has the handwritten words "strut flash" on it. Yeah, baby!
Bearing in mind what I said Tuesday about sound effects, I really enjoyed the effects here. They are subtle and varied and add a lot of atmosphere (not eerie atmosphere, but a strong sense of place). The very first poem, which appears on the inside cover of the book, is accompanied by the sounds you might hear as you walked down a street in Harlem on a warm day -- traffic noises, footsteps, music, conversations. There's also plenty of underlying music as well: a bit of "Take the A Train" starts and finishes the book, while jazz and choral bits come in and out. Willie Arnold's poem is accompanied, of course, by an alto sax.
Another place I really enjoyed the sound effects was Delia Pierce's poem. You hear the gamut of beauty salon sounds in between the pauses of the words.
Clearly, a tremendous amount of thought and work went into this audiobook: music permissions, hiring a cast of actors, identifying the sound effects and weaving them in seamlessly. A tip of the hat to Live Oak Media for this stellar effort. While I haven't heard any of the other contenders, there is no doubt that Here in Harlem is truly distinguished.
Here in Harlem: Poems in Many Voices by Walter Dean Myers
Narrated by Muhammad Cunningham, Michael Early, Patricia R. Floyd, Kevin R. Free, Arthur French, Dion Graham, Nathan Hinton, Ezra Knight, Robin Miles, Lizan Mitchell, Gail Nelson, Monica Patton, and Charles Turner; introduction read by Walter Dean Myers
Live Oak Media, 2010. 1:30