A friend of mine is writing a term paper on Billie Holiday’s classic “Strange Fruit.” “What’s that?” I asked. I’d never heard of the song before, and I’m admittedly unknowledgeable when it comes to jazz. Old school in my mind stretches to the time of Motown standards and Stevie Wonder. I regret knowing so little about Billie Holiday’s career. I’ve seen the iconic images of the notorious jazz artist every now and again and they always make me think, “that Lady had style.” After hearing about the song, I had to learn more. Partly because I’m constantly curious, but also because I’m a history major, and well, I live for this stuff.
“Strange Fruit” is an island all to itself. Few songs braved its subject matter, decrying the horror of lynching violence once rampant in the south, in the 1930s. It was spontaneous and unexpected. The song began as a poem by Abel Meeropol, who went under the alias “Lewis Allan.” I can imagine it wasn’t safe to write anti-lynching sentiments during the time, even for a Jewish schoolteacher. Stories conflict as to how the poem wound up in the young budding starlet’s hands. Some aim to discredit Holiday’s involvement in her decision to perform the song, and state that she was simply told to sing with no knowledge of the song’s somber message. I view this version of events as improbable. Whatever the truth in the end, it was Holiday’s performance and her solid delivery that brought Meeropol’s poem to an unassuming American public. It was Holiday who distinctly interpreted the song and made it her own, standing in the spotlight at each show, vulnerable to ridicule and rejection before live audiences.
She performed the song for the first time in 1938. Record companies wouldn’t dare touch the song to produce as an actual side. The heat around its controversial topic was just too strong especially when Jim Crow still had a heinous stronghold over parts of the country. But “Strange Fruit” became a Holiday favorite regardless and she performed the song night after night.
It was finally recorded in 1939 to mixed receptions of intrigue, but more so to puzzlement over what to do with such a strong statement about America’s ghastly secret. Holiday became closely linked with the recording and had to endure discrimination and abuse from those upset by her daring attempt to elucidate truth through the uncharacteristic song.
A wailing trumpet cries all by its lonesome and a solemn piano follows, all occurring one minute before Holiday sings a single note. The words are unnerving. Allegorical references abound but the heavy message is clear. It’s known what Meeropol makes mention of, but never reiterates excessively. The song’s nuances are warmly poetic, but not trite. Provocative and allusive, they are a dignified acknowledgment of a dark part in our nation’s history, and a respectful nod to the victims that the endemic poison swallowed whole. Holiday’s voice soars over piercing notes high and low, evoking a slow and quiet but telling pain. Here, an excerpt: “Pastoral scene of the gallant South / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth / Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh / And the sudden smell of burning flesh / Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck / For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck / For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop / Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
Holiday was only 24 years old when she performed the song for the first time in the Cafe Society. In later years following its groundbreaking New York debut, the song became a symbol during the civil rights movement and was internationally received, re-recorded by music greats including Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson and Terence Blanchard among others. A book about the song, Strange Fruit: Billy Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights by David Margolick, quotes jazz critic Leonard Feather singing its praises as the “first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.”
Billie Holiday went on to have a successful yet turbulent career. A fallible being, Holiday’s voice was silenced when her life ended from years of substance abuse. She was 44 years old. What a gift she had to give to the world. I am grateful for having been introduced to this remarkable song.
Archived article by Sophia Asare
Sun Staff Writer