At one point in history, the New York City subway system was among the most impressive in the world. These days it resembles what you would imagine a third world country’s subway system would look like, with third string trains donated from cities that upgraded their system years ago and no longer had any use for them, but it still gets you from point A to point B and that’s what matters. Albeit confusing to out of towners, you can hop on a train in midtown Manhattan and get almost anywhere you would like to go in the city. Since it is such an extensive system, those who are completely unfamiliar with New York’s subway system might have a tough time going from borough to borough, and might not even be aware that there are both letter and number trains. However, thanks to Duke Ellington’s infamous 1939 hit “Take the A Train,” almost everyone is aware of at least one line in the NYC subway system, which is more than you can say about almost any other city in the world.
Although popularized by Duke Ellington, “Take the A Train” was written by long-time collaborator and pianist Billy Strayhorn. The swing anthem became the signature piece for Ellington’s orchestra, and was often used as its opening theme and standout song. For most jazz musicians at that time, bandleaders would not put a song they didn’t write themselves in the spotlight like that, however Ellington and Strayhorn’s relationship was atypical. In his biography, Ellington said Strayhorn “was not, as he was often referred to by many, my alter ego. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, and the eyes in the back of my head.”
‘Take the A Train’ was written in Strayhorn’s head while at a party, then put on paper that evening when he got home. The song title was inspired by directions Ellington gave to Strayhorn to get to his house in Sugar Hill, which began with “Take the A Train…,” and the music was influenced by Fletcher Henderson’s style of jazz. Although Ellington’s rendition is instrumental, Ella Fitzgerald released a popular version with the original lyrics Strayhorn wrote about getting to Ellington’s home in Harlem.
Ellington’s home was located in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, which is where the Harlem Renaissance took place between the 1920’s and 1950’s. At the time, Sugar Hill was the ritziest, most elegant African-American neighborhood in the United States. It was deemed “Sugar” Hill because of how sweet it was to live there, with the heart of the neighborhood located between 144th and 155th street. The high-class neighborhood was filled with stately homes and luxury apartments, and inhabited by African-American artists, activists, politicians, and intellectuals. The Harlem Renaissance was responsible for allowing African-Americans to focus on their past, as well as develop a unique identity for themselves, thus creating a culture within a culture. It brought people closer to their roots, and allowed them to celebrate who they were while exploring new creative channels to expression, with the Sugar Hill neighborhood as the epicenter of it all. “Take the A Train” became the anthem of this movement, and was highly praised by all of New York.
Today the Sugar Hill neighborhood is still lined with elegant homes and beautiful apartment buildings, with the rich, historic culture dominating the neighborhood. As most areas change over time, there has been a recent slight decline in African-Americans living in Sugar Hill to make room for other cultures, however it is still primarily a black neighborhood. Art and creativity thrives within the neighborhood, and you can still take the “A” train uptown anytime you’d like to soak up the culture and be inspired.
‘Take The A Train’ Lyrics:
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
You’ll find you missed the quickest way to Harlem
Listen to those rails a-hummingAll aboard, get on the A train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem