Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Songby David Margolick
Recorded by jazz legend Billie Holiday in 1939, "Strange Fruit" is considered to be the first significant song of the civil rights movement and the first direct musical assault upon racial lynchings in the South. Originally sung in New York's Cafe Society, these revolutionary lyrics take on a life of their own in this revealing account of the song and the struggle
Recorded by jazz legend Billie Holiday in 1939, "Strange Fruit" is considered to be the first significant song of the civil rights movement and the first direct musical assault upon racial lynchings in the South. Originally sung in New York's Cafe Society, these revolutionary lyrics take on a life of their own in this revealing account of the song and the struggle it personified. Strange Fruit not only chronicles the civil rights movement from the '30s on, it examines the lives of the beleaguered Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol, the white Jewish schoolteacher and communist sympathizer who wrote the song that would have an impact on generations of fans, black and white, unknown and famous, including performers Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, and Sting.
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Read an Excerpt
As Billie Holiday later told the story, a single gesture by a patron at a New York nightclub called Café Society changed the history of American music that night in early 1939, the night that she first sang "Strange Fruit."
Café Society was New York's only truly integrated nightclub, a place catering to progressive types with open minds. But Holiday was to recall that even there, she was afraid to sing this new song, a song that tackled racial hatred head-on at a time when protest music was all but unknown, and regretted it-at least momentarily-when she first did. "There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished," she later wrote in her autobiography. "Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everybody was clapping."
The applause grew louder and a bit less tentative as "Strange Fruit" became a nightly ritual for Holiday, then one of her most successful records, then one of her signature songs, at least in those places where it was safe to perform, For throughout Holidays short life-she died in 1959 at the age of forty-four- the song existed in a kind of artistic quarantine: it could travel, but only to selected places. And in the forty years since her death, audiences have continued to applaud, respect, and be moved by this disturbing ballad, unique in Holiday's oeuvre and in the repertoire of American music, as it has left its mark on generations of writers, musicians, and other listeners, both black and white, in America and throughout the world.
A "historic document," the famed songwriter E. Y. "Yip" Harburg called "Strange Fruit." The late jazz writer Leonard Feather once called "Strange Fruit" "the firstsignificant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism." To Bobby Short, the song was "very, very pivotal," a way of moving the tragedy of lynching out of the black press and into the white consciousness. "When you think of the South and Jim Crow, you naturally think of the song, not of 'We Shall Overcome,'" said Studs Terkel. Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary record producer, called "Strange Fruit," which Holiday first sang sixteen years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, "a declaration of war ... the beginning of the civil rights movement."
Holiday performed the song countless times in her last two decades. So much about her-her appearance, her physical well-being, her personal fortunes, the sound of her voice-seemed to fluctuate wildly during that time. Though heroin and alcohol were killing her, she also experienced great moments of triumph. But whether they heard her on record or on the radio (where it was played occasionally and hesitantly by black or "nigger-loving" white disc jockeys) or got to see it performed by Holiday or someone else, those who've encountered "Strange Fruit" have found the song engraved into their consciousness. Though they may not have heard it for years, many can still recite the lyrics by heart. "Outside of knowing all of the words to 'America the Beautiful,' " a retired English professor and writer named Feenie Ziner remembered, I don't know that there has been another song, or another singer, I could recall so completely-what is it?-sixty years later." Why? Because, as Ziner put it, "Billie Holiday tore your heart out" when she sang it. Fans of the song do not say they like it-how can one actually like a song on such a subject?-but they acknowledge its lasting impact. They credit it with helping awaken them to the realities of racial prejudice and the redemptive, ameliorative power of art. Whether they protested in Selma or took part in the March on Washington or spent their lives as social activists, many say that it was hearing "Strange Fruit" that triggered the process. "Would my empathy for and with the underdogs of the world have drawn me into the same career paths if I had never heard of Billie Holiday? I doubt it," said George Sinclair, a native Southerner who spent his life working with the underprivileged and disenfranchised. "If Billie Holiday didn't light the fuse, she unquestionably fed the flame."
And yet "Strange Fruit," both as a song and as a historical phenomenon, seems surprisingly unknown today. No doubt in large part because of its subject matter, it's not one of the many, many Holiday standards one encounters continually, whether on radio stations or piped in over speakers in the ubiquitous Starbucks, like "God Bless the Child," "Lover Man," "Miss Brown to You," or "I Cover the Waterfront." It is an anomaly, both inside and outside Holiday's body of work.
"Strange Fruit" defies easy musical categorization and has slipped between the cracks of academic study. It is too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz. Surely no song in American history has ever been so guaranteed to silence an audience or to generate such discomfort. Joe Segal has run the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, the second oldest jazz club in America, for fifty years, but he still won't listen to it when it comes on the radio. "It's too stark," he told me. "I can't handle it."
Coming out in 1939-the same year as Gone With the Wind, a film that embodied contemporary condescension toward blacks and black performers-and around the time that Ella Fitzgerald's "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" was more what people expected from black "girl singers"-"Strange Fruit" "put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture" Angela Davis wrote in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism. Sixty years after it was first sung, jazz musicians still speak of the song with a mixture of awe and fear. "When she recorded it, it was more than revolutionary," the drummer Max Roach said of Holiday.Strange Fruit. Copyright © by David Margolick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
David Margolick is a contributor to Vanity Fair and the former National Legal Affairs Editor for the New York Times. A four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is the author of Undue Influence and At the Bar. He lives in New York City.
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