“Jazz is About Freedom”: Billie Holiday’s Anti-lynching Song Strange Fruit

Estimated Time of Completion: 3 to 5 class periods with some additional time for students to complete group projects.


  • To learn about lynching and its relationship to racism in American history.
  • To learn about the many strategies that were used to stem the tide of lynchings which engulfed the South, especially, in the first half of the 20th century.
  • To use primary source documents to analyze the anti-lynching movement in America.
  • To appreciate the ways in which jazz contributed to the political awareness of the American public.

Materials Needed

  • A copy of the PBS documentary JAZZ. This lesson primarily uses Episodes One, Two, Five and Six of the series.
  • Documents in the Library of Congress and National Archives, available online. Teachers can print the documents for students to use. Alternatively, if students have direct access to computers they can view or print the documents directly. (The URLs for all documents appear in the lesson.)
  • Materials for creating a classroom timeline, including index cards and considerable wall space, or a computer program which generates graphic organizers such as Hyperstudio or Inspiration.
  • Materials from the Constitutional Rights Foundation on lynching and hate crimes provide useful background information for the teacher and/or students.(Again, the URL for these materials appears in the lesson).


This lesson correlates to the National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools located online at https://socialsciences.ucla.edu/:

  • Explain the rising racial conflict in different areas including the rise of lynching in the South.
  • Analyze the arguments and methods by which various minority groups sought to acquire equal rights and opportunities guaranteed in the nation’s charter documents.
  • Analyze how radio, movies, newspapers, and popular magazines created mass culture.

Procedures and Activities


This lesson focuses on Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit, a protest song Lewis Allen wrote in 1938 about the ongoing and intransigent problem of lynching in the American South. After asking students to assess the role music plays in their own lives, the lesson introduces some background information about lynching.

The bulk of the lesson is document-based. Working in small teams, students analyze a variety of primary source materials related to lynching (news articles, letters written to or written by prominent Americans, pamphlets, broadsides, etc.) in order to assess the effectiveness of the anti-lynching campaign spearheaded by African-Americans. The documents themselves, which span 1893-1940, are a moving testament to the tragedy wrought by lynchings, as well as to the courage of those who left no stone unturned in trying to find remedies.

The information each team culls from the documents is then placed on a large class timeline. Each group also creates a group of “original” primary sources which are used to decorate the timeline. Using a variety of analytical strategies, the entire class assesses the strategies of anti-lynching activists.

The lesson then focuses on Billie Holiday, her song Strange Fruit, and the role technology played in disseminating popular culture. A variety of extension activities are suggested in which students analyze the role protest music has played in more recent times (e.g. the Vietnam War era) and assess the role musicians and movie stars play in political causes in our own day.

Assessment Suggestions

  • Students may be assessed for the work they placed on the timeline, such as their index cards and facsimile documents.
  • Students may be assessed on any concluding essay or graphic organizer you may assign which summarizes what the class learned through generating the timeline.
  • Students may be self-, peer-, or teacher-evaluated for their effectiveness as members of a team, and for their contributions to class discussion.

Extensions / Adaptations

  1. The Effect of Songs on Political Consciousness

    At the time Billie Holiday was ready to record Strange Fruit her record company thought the song was too controversial to release. It was eventually put out by the Commodore label. It was an immediate success and to this day it remains Holiday’s most famous song.

    Ask students to discuss whether or not the song might have had an impact on racism in the ’30s. Do students think social scientists or historians can gauge the effects of a song on the public, and if so how?

    To extend this idea, ask students to interview an adult who lived through the Civil Rights or the Vietnam War eras. What music does the adult associate with those times? What feelings and associations does that music evoke? Did the music “move” the interviewee to new awareness of a problem or into social action? What impact do students feel rap music makes on our society today? Why does it remain controversial?

  2. Lynchings and Hate Crimes

    The Constitutional Rights Foundation writes that Hate crimes, motivated by race, color, creed, religion or gender are on the rise around the world, including the United States where over half of such crimes are committed by people under the age of 21 [but] the line between punishing hate and protecting speech and free thought can be difficult to draw.”

    What do students feel should be done about crimes motivated by hate? Should they be treated differently from crimes motivated by other emotions, like greed, and if so why? What are proper punishments for hate crimes, such as the murder of the gay student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming in 1998? How are these crimes similar to lynchings and how are they different? Hold a debate about what should be done about hate crimes.

  3. Write a Song About an Urgent Issue of Today

    Ask students to write a poem about an issue they care about and set it to music. Students can look at the Jazz Lounge section of the PBS Web site for help in music theory. They can pattern their song on Strange Fruit: three stanzas with an AABB CCDD EEFF rhyme scheme.

  4. Interview With Billie Holiday

    If Billie Holiday were alive today, what kinds of questions would students want to ask her about her life, singing and politics? For further information about Billie Holiday’s life, view Episode Six beginning approximately 47 minutes into the video with the title “Musical Kinship” and ending about five minutes later. It is about the collaboration of Lester Young and Billie Holiday.

    Episode Seven has a short but moving account of Holiday’s personal problems and struggle against racism. It begins about 111 minutes into the video and ends about five minutes later. Finally, Episode Nine deals with the last years of Holiday’s life and her final collaborative effort with Lester Young. It begins approximately 101 minutes into the film with a jam session and ends about 12 minutes later with the title “Inside Out.”

About the Authors

Joan Brodsky Schur teaches social studies and English at the Village Community School in New York City. Her work in the classroom has been described in various articles she has written over the years for Social Education. Joan and fellow-colleague Sari Grossman are the editors of In A New Land: An Anthology of Immigrant Literature. Joan is also a contributing author to the Constitution Community, a Web site of the National Archives at http://www.archives.gov/digital_classroom/constitution_community.html.

All content in this curriculum provided by PBS. Chiaroscuro is not responsible for the content provided therein. Any questions, contact teachersource@pbs.org

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