Music of the Harlem Renaissance

Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (1939) Considered one of the first protest songs outside of hymns and spirituals, Strange Fruit left quite a mark on the world. Though originally a poem written by a white Jewish male schoolteacher under the pen name Lewis Allan, it brought awareness to the horrors of lynching, as well as the targeting of black Americans. This song was subversive due to the overarching metaphor of black people as the fruit of trees, but also in the ritual of Ms. Holiday’s performance. Lady Day would still and quiet the crowd, and turn off all the lights except a single spotlight on her face. Being that she often performed for mostly-white or integrated audiences, this ritual forced the crowds to really deal with the subject matter. “Strange Fruit” serves as an affirmation for black struggle and specifically for Ms. Holiday, it was an act of resistance against oppressive forces. Despite the fear of retaliation and intimidation from audiences, venues, and record labels, Billie Holiday performed the song in memory of her father, a black war veteran who died from being denied medical care after exposure to mustard gas.


Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Southern trees bear a strange fruit


Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

Take the A Train“ (1939) A jazz standard from the Duke, this song celebrated anddetailed the migration to the city during the big art and intellectual explosion of the Harlem Renaissance. Along with the major work done in creating a new cultural identity, the movement planted the roots forthe Civil Rights Movement by focusing on the past and present while creating a better future for the blackpopulation within the United States. Throughout the song, there are allusions to Sugar Hill, which was theheart of the Renaissance. It became an affluent black neighborhood in Harlem and home to many,including W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Cab Calloway, Thurgood Marshall, and more. While DukeEllington performed this song with his band, the song was actually written by his musical partner, BillyStrayhorn. Strayhorn came up with the words after having to give subway directions, as the A line wasbrand new at that point. This song was chosen for its allusions to self-love in the fact that Strayhorn wasusing the song to talk about going home, as he was taken in by Ellington, and stayed in the Duke’s homein Harlem. Strayhorn, an openly gay black musician, hailed from Dayton, Ohio and had an abusive father.Duke Ellington recognized Strayhorn’s talent, and accepted him as a member of the band, as well as amember of his own family. Another aspect that Strayhorn could be alluding to could be the comfort hefelt in Harlem to express himself as a gay man. Harlem served as the backdrop to another aspect of the Renaissance; it served as the epicenter for a LGBT sub-movement where free sexual expression was explored and even encouraged in some places. 


You must take the A train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A train
You’ll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-humming
All aboard, get on the A train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem