Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive (1944)

burleyimage-webHarlem in the early 1940s was a place in flux. Though the Renaissance had ended a decade or so earlier, the cultural scene was still quite vibrant, with legendary jazz musicians, dancers, and entertainers of all sorts performing regularly in its many nightclubs. Along both 125th Street and Seventh Avenue, many street corner orators spouted a range of viewpoints, including those of Pan-Africanism, Communism, and religions too numerous to detail.

Previewing the decades that followed, discrimination and unemployment also ran high in the area, as did tensions between police and local residents. The latter resulted in the Harlem Riot of 1943, which saw more than 500 injured and a roughly equal number arrested.

It was in this heady atmosphere that Dan Burley plied his many trades. In the pages of the Amsterdam News, Burley both chronicled Harlem nightlife and wrote a sports column in which he became a leading advocate for the integration of baseball; his talents as an accomplished “boogie woogie” piano player simultaneously made him a fixture in Harlem’s music scene. Born in Kentucky in 1907 to a Baptist minister and a mother who once taught at Tuskegee, Burley took a few detours en route to New York City. His family first moved to Texas, but then came to Chicago during the Black Migration of World War I. After graduating from Wendell Phillips High School, where his classmates included the great vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, Burley made his mark as a versatile journalist at the Chicago Defender, a left-wing black paper. Meanwhile, he first showed his piano chops by playing at rent parties, eventually leading him to write lively numbers such as “Pig Foot Sonata” (with Hampton) and “The Chicken Shack Shuffle.”

Burley came to Harlem in 1937, joining the Amsterdam News as reporter, city editor, nightlife columnist, theater editor, and sports editor (talk about range!). Over the next few years, he gained prominence for his two regular columns in the weekly paper, “Back Door Stuff,” which covered the Harlem scene, and “Confidentially Yours,” about sports. It was in “Back Door Stuff” where Burley began to document the “jive” spoken by hep cats in the clubs and on the streets of Harlem. He would write many columns entirely in jive, whereas in others he would simply drop in words and references that required familiarity with the ever-expanding lexicon. In 1941, the Amsterdam News celebrated Burley’s efforts, claiming that his columns “stand out like gems in contemporary Negro newspaper literature and have countless readers both colored and white.”

Over the next few years Burley engaged in dialogues with his readers—including many servicemen and women stationed overseas during the war—about new jive expressions. According to Burley, it was Harlem’s eminent man of letters, Langston Hughes, who “insisted” that he compile a handbook of jive; Hughes would later tout Burley and his work in the former’s nationally syndicated column. As Burley explained in the book’s preface, “This volume is intended as a guide and handbook designed primarily to give students of Jive, and those who would like to be ‘in the know’ about this newest and most popular addition to the American dialect, an idea of what it is all about.” As its title suggested, the work really was all about the lingua franca of Harlem during the era. In his dialogues and stories, and parodies of Shakespeare’s monologues and other famous poets, Burley sought, via jive, to capture the many cultural crosscurrents blowing through the capital of black America.

In retrospect, the extent to which people in Harlem and elsewhere actually deployed jive in their everyday speech is difficult to determine. But the give-and-take of its creation—which produced many of the memorable terms Burley records, such as “Beat the Rocks” (walk the street), “Chamber of Commerce” (toilet), “expense” (newborn baby), and “pimp steak” (hot dog)—certainly captured the imagination of the time. What follows is a brief sampling—the first of which Burley translates, the second presented here for those in the know.

Jive for Jivers

Two hepcats, their hair heavily larded, are standing near the juke box in the candy store. The first is telling his friend a story. He says:

“Ole man, it’s about a tray of haircuts on the backbeat when I nixes my pad, drops my twister on the keep, and collars a light broom down the cruncher to the lushpad on the three pointer. I’m stiffing the stroll on the flag spot when up pops a fine banana with a cluck stud hanging around her crook. I digs the play and rolls it over in my conk that this is a wild banter that’s trying to flop but can’t fly. Now the cluck stud is in there, ole man, he’s in there. He’s draped out in cutting blue with rolls as big as a needle’s eye, and spreading like the mumps at his deuce of benders. His sky is righteous and hooks over his gimmers like pie crust over the rim of a pan. His treaders, ole man, are brand new and his tops hit him across his ticker with the straps as short as my cash. That fine banana, ole man, understand, is as mellow as a cello, as fine as red wine, a killer from Manila; like the tree, ole man, understand?, all root. Like the bear’s brother Eddie, Jack, she’s ready. She’s righteous, ole man; she’s reacheous and she’s shaped up like a Coca-Cola bottle, wide open at the throttle. In fact, stud hoss, she’s as pretty as a speckled pup climbing up a green hill under a country wagon on a summer afternoon in June. She’s in her dried barkers like kong in glassware, and those gams, ole man, understand, are like the props on a goola. My conk said grey, but Jackson, I dug the sniffer a button, ole man, understand? That gave her away.

“I want to lay my lay my larceny, but the cluck’s done cruised her through the slammer before I can shift to second. But I cops a drill right after them, ole man, and I dug my broom, quite racy, like Count Basie. Inside they’re spraying with their cutware upside down, and I digs that all the stud’s laying down is a deuce of demons, because he don’t spread nothing but thins on the line. At the same time, homey, I’m eating onions and wiping my eyes; just like the chicken, I ain’t sticking. Yet, all the time, I’m rolling it in my conk that he’s a Lane from Spokane, or at most, a Home from Rome. I’m figuring what’s the jive and how I’m gonna cut in, when the stud cuts out to drop a flat in the piccolo. While he’s wriggling and twisting with the pic, I’m gunning this fine banana, and she finally gims me kinda hard, ole man, just like the Norwegian lard. I hooks and she latches on, because I digs him two camels down the road doing a solo in a boulevard westerner as though he was in a hurry to get back.

“Ole man, I tunes my brace of receivers in real sharp and eases around until I’m right by this fine banana. Here’s the spiel I laid on her:

“Listen, Babes, you’re mellow, understand? I dug you when you popped in port. You’re making the wrong play; I’m your light of day. That square ain’t nowhere. I’m the accelerator; you’re the moderator, ain’t you got no pressure to spare? I can make you mellow, but you gotta nix out that fellow. I’m a hipped cat, understand?

“Now here’s what she laid on me:

“‘I believe, my friend, your name is West; you’re working hard to bust your vest. Sure, I’m mellow, and I’m a solid frail; you’ve got the right hammer but you use the wrong nail. You’re picking up nickels and laying down dimes but your jive is beat and sour as limes.’”

…and Those Who Are Not

Two hepcats, their hair heavily larded, are standing near the juke box in the candy store. The first is telling his friend a story. He says:

“My friend, about three weeks ago I left home, gave my key to the housekeeper, and walked down the avenue to the tavern on the corner. I’m standing there where the bus stops, loafing, when a pretty yellow girl comes along with a very dark individual holding her arm. I look them over quickly and decide that she is a gay young woman who is out in the nightlife whirl for the first time. Now her companion is flashily dressed in the latest style. He is wearing a sharply pressed blue suit, the trousers of which are very small at the ankles, and very large and balloon-like at the knees. He has on a good hat, the brim of which is turned down over his eyes in the latest Harlem fashion. His shoes are brand new. The tops of his trousers are so high they reach his heart. His suspenders are as short as can be. That fine high yellow girl is easy to look at: in fact, she’s everything a man would want in a woman. She fits into furs like whiskey in a bottle. Her legs are shapely and rounded as the legs on a piano. At first I thought she was a white girl, but when I observed her nose, it was flat as a button. I thus found she was colored.

“You see, I wanted to get a word with her, but her companion rushed her through the door before I could move. I walked in behind them casually. Inside, they were drinking and I saw at once that her escort was spending only a few dimes. At the same time, my friend, I realize that I haven’t any money; in fact, I’m dead broke. Yet, all the time, I’m thinking that her companion is just a nice fellow, or at most, a working man. I’m trying to see my way clear to horn in on them when he gets up to drop a nickel in the music box. While he is busy with the jukebox, I’m staring at her. She finally looks at me. I nod to her and she seems to understand because I see her boyfriend fifteen minutes later riding in a taxicab as though he were anxious to be gone and get back.

“I listen closely to everything she says and move to her side. Then I tell her:

“You are lovely and I saw you when you entered the place. You are out with the wrong person; I am the type of man you should be with and your friend doesn’t mean a thing to you. I am the kind of man you will find enjoyment being out with. Will you share your affections with me? And I say that I can show you a pleasant evening but you will have to leave your friend.

“Here’s what she told me:

“‘I believe, my friend, that you are a most unusual person but you’re working overtime to get yourself in trouble. Sure, I’m a good looking girl, and you’ve got a good line of talk, but not for me. You think yourself very charming and clever, but your story is weak; in fact, it leaves me cold, and doesn’t sound good at all.’”

The Night Before Christmas

Twas the black before Yuletide, and all through the pad,

King Kong and sweet reefers were all them cats had.

Their boots were laced up to their armpits with care,

They all were hep, that St. Nick ain’t nowhere.

Then out of the pitchblack, ole Santa drilled in,

Draped at the top and pegged back in the end.

His stumps were enclosed in some hard cuttin’ brown,

And the glare from his fresh conk brought all the cats down.

He dropped to his benders and opened the pack,

And the glitter and the glamour drove the frantic mob back.

Then one hipster arose from the gage blowin’ hot,

And said, “Hip us, Scribe Santa, just what have you got?”

Santa bared his bridgework in fanatic glee,

As he cocked his receivers to the viper’s plea.

“Will you lay some sweets on me, Santa?” said he,

“To preserve the fragrance of my most righteous tea

“Or some sweet mellow music, Or some soft dim lights?

Just wise us, Scribe Santa, Just what have you got?”

Santa jumped up and from where he stood,

He snatched up his luggage from the polished wood.

“I’ve got lots of things for you cats, fine and nice,

“But the only thing you’ll get from me is some fine advice.

“Now shuck all the cases, and step on a snake.

“And never give a square an even break.

“When your jive gets low and you don’t think it’ll last,

“Don’t sip it and tease yourself to death. Do as I do, blast!”

With these final words, he cut through the slammer,

And that was the last the cats dug of ole Santa.

Now my story is fine, as you cats will agree,

And ain’t no cat so hep as me.

Trilly is my play, so take it slow,

Hit it once, Jack, all reet now let me go. Burley Explains the Significance of Jive:

The proponents of Harlem jive talk do not entertain any grandiose illusions about the importance or durability of jive. They do not hope that courses in the lingo will ever be offered at Harvard or Columbia University. Neither do they expect to learn that Mrs. Faunteen Chauncey of the Mayfair Set addresses her English butler as “stud hoss,” and was called in reply, “a sturdy ole hen.” However, they do cherish some fond dreams. They hope that some day, the cats who lay the larceny in the book of many pages (dictionary) will give the jivers a break and substitute the phrase, “twister to the slammer,” for the word “key”; use the word “jive” in their definition of slang; and otherwise give notice to those hipped studs who have collared such a heavy slave to add color to the American language.

You can get a re-vised copy of the book edited by Thomas Aiello here.

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