Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and a Cry for Civil Rights

Overview

From four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee David Margolick, STRANGE FRUIT explores the story of the memorable civil rights ballad made famous by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. The song's powerful, evocative lyrics-written by a Jewish communist schoolteacher who, late in life, adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-portray the lynching of a black man in the South. Holiday's performances sparked conflict and controversy wherever she went, and the song has since been covered by Lena Horne, Tori Amos, ...

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Overview

From four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee David Margolick, STRANGE FRUIT explores the story of the memorable civil rights ballad made famous by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. The song's powerful, evocative lyrics-written by a Jewish communist schoolteacher who, late in life, adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-portray the lynching of a black man in the South. Holiday's performances sparked conflict and controversy wherever she went, and the song has since been covered by Lena Horne, Tori Amos, Sting, and countless others. Margolick's careful reconstruction of the story behind the song, portions of which have appeared in Vanity Fair, includes a discography of "Strange Fruit" recordings as well as newly uncovered photographs that capture Holiday in performance at Greenwich Village's Café Society. A must for jazz aficionados.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The song Strange Fruit is undeniably one of the most haunting tunes in musical history, springing forth so searingly from the lips of one of jazz music's most haunted souls, Billie Holiday. And yet the most captivating thing about this remarkable song is its relation, not to the singer who made it famous, but to the civil rights movement that erupted in its wake.
Time
Strange Fruit:The Best Song of the Century - In this sad, shadowy song about lynching in the South, history's greatest jazz singer comes to terms with history itself.
Publishers Weekly
With thorough research and the smooth writing of a journalist, Margolick has produced a superb piece of cultural history.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In 1939, at Greenwich Village's Left-wing Caf Society, Billie Holiday gave the first public performance of a song whose lyrics tender a gory vision of a lynched black man hanging from a tree. The song, "Strange Fruit," became one of Holiday's signature pieces, eliciting strong emotions in black and white audiences alike. Now Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has written a history of the song that Q, a British music publication, counted among the "ten songs that actually changed the world." Following "Strange Fruit" from its birth at the hand of Jewish schoolteacher and Communist Abel Meeropol through its occasional present-day revivals by a smattering of intrepid musicians, Margolick culls the opinions of music scholars on the influential ballad's cultural and musical impact and quotes critics from Holiday's era. He consults sources including black newspapers, radio stations, record sales and jukebox data to determine who actually heard "Strange Fruit" and how different groups reacted. Most effectively, by drawing on personal recollections of Holiday, Meeropol, Caf Society promoter Barney Josephson and people who heard Holiday sing the song either live or on vinyl--plus a brief history of Southern lynchings--Margolick re-creates the tense web of bitterness, guilt, denial and anger that surrounded Holiday's charged performances of "Strange Fruit." With thorough research and the smooth writing of a journalist, Margolick has produced a superb piece of cultural history. Photos. Author tour. (Mar.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
How did a lurid ("Black body hanging in the Southern breeze,/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees") and almost rhythmless protest song about Southern lynching become a Depression-era sensation at the Greenwich Village nightclub Cafe Society and later around the world? The great Billie Holiday sang it, for one thing. This story of the life of the 1939composition written by a Bronx leftist school teacher, Abel Meeropol, and claimed for years by its most famous singer (who made it one of her standards) takes an interesting approach. Margolick (Undue Influence) presents a quick, fluent survey of the times and characters that formed "strange Fruit" - a song that inspired and enraged many listeners in those days before the Civil Rights movement and changed Holiday as a performer. The book is also (at 144 wide-margined pages) barely padded-out from its beginnings as a Vanity Fair article. When Margolick exhausts the story of the ballad's provocative early performance and the evolving folklore surrounding its authorship, he adds on lightweight testimonials by later performers who've wrestled with "Strange Fruit" - Tori Amos, Natalie Merchant, Cassandra Wilson, Sting-but you sense that the real story is over even before it so quickly ends. Recommended for large public libraries, this does not replace Holiday biographies. [This book is being published on April 7, Lady Day's 85th birthday; Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the Best Song of the Century.-Ed.]-Nathan Ward, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information
Booknews
The lyrics of "Strange Fruit," the controversial ballad that became Billie Holiday's signature song, describe a lynched black man hanging from a tree. Its performance sparked controversy and sometimes violence wherever Holiday went. This is the story of the song, from its genesis, to its popularization by Holiday in nightclubs like New York's Caf<'e> Society, to its enduring power today. There are many first-hand accounts of the song's effects on musicians, artists, intellectuals, activists, and even the bartenders and waitresses who worked at the clubs. Includes b&w photos. Margolick is a contributing editor for . The book is not indexed. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Bessie Dituri
As it turns out, the story of the song is just as fascinating as the controversy it stirred up...Margolick weaves stories from many sources, including musicians, jazz scholars, and newspaper articles, as well as some of the people who were fortunate enough to hear Holliday sing it. The result is a captivating look into the disputed accounts of who wrote the lyrics; the tragic life of Billie Holliday, who succumbed to heroin in 1959; and the song itself, which continues to be recorded by many contemporary artists.
Brill's Content
David Nasaw
Like Holiday's performance, Margolick's book is understated but intense, suffused with grace, power and dignity. It works on several levels: as tribute, elegy, homage and cultural history.
The New York Times Book Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780762406777
  • Publisher: Running Press Book Publishers
  • Publication date: 4/6/2000
  • Series: Running Press Series
  • Pages: 160
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.76 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


    Southern trees


Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
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.


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, thenone of her signature songs, at least in those places where it was safe to perform. For throughout Holiday's short life—she died in 1939 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.

    An "historic document," the famed songwriter E.Y. "Yip" Harburg called "Strange Fruit." The late jazz writer Leonard Feather once called "Strange Fruit" "the first significant 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 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. "She made a statement that we all felt as black folks. No one was speaking out. She became one of the fighters, this beautiful lady who could sing and make you feel things. She became a voice of black people and they loved this woman." When the song appeared, most radio stations found it too sensitive to put on the air; to this day even the most progressive disc jockeys play it only occasionally. "It's pretty intense and I'm trying to be entertaining," said Michael Bourne, who runs one of the most popular jazz programs in metropolitan New York. Those who perform the song do so almost gingerly ("It's like rubbing people's noses in their own shit," said Mal Waldron, the pianist who accompanied Holiday in her final years) and, often, only when they have to; sometimes it's just too much to take.

    A few years back, Q a British music publication, named "Strange Fruit" one of "ten songs that actually changed the world." Like any revolutionary act, the song initially encountered great resistance. Holiday and the black folksinger Josh White, who began performing it a few years after Holiday first did, were abused, sometimes physically, by irate nightclub patrons—"crackers" as Holiday called them. Columbia Records, Holiday's label in the late 1930s, refused to record it. And, again like revolutionary acts, the song has generated its own share of mythology, none more enduring than Holiday's oft-uttered claim that she partly wrote it herself or had it written for her. "Strange Fruit" marked a watershed, praised by some, lamented by others, in Holiday's evolution from exuberant jazz singer to chanteuse of lovelorn pain and loneliness. Once Holiday added it to her repertoire, some of its sadness seemed to cling to her; as she deteriorated physically, the song took on new poignancy and immediacy. The jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason even saw it as a metaphor for her entire life. "She really was happy only when she sang," he once wrote. "The rest of the time she was a sort of living lyric to the song `Strange Fruit,' hanging, not on a poplar tree, but on the limbs of life itself."

    In its own small way, "Strange Fruit" might even have accelerated Holiday's decline. Surely a song that forced a nation to confront its darkest impulses, a song that maligned an entire portion of the country, did not win her any friends in high places who might have cut her some slack as she degenerated into substance abuse and assorted scrapes with the law. "I've made lots of enemies, too," she told Down Beat in 1947, shortly after she was busted for drugs in Philadelphia. "Singing that [`Strange Fruit'] hasn't helped any. I was doing it at the Earle [Theater in Philadelphia] 'til they made me stop." William Dufty, the man who cowrote Holiday's autobiography, is convinced that Holiday short-changed the creator of "Strange Fruit" because she felt the song only brought her grief—even leading her at one point to be hauled before red-baiting federal investigators.

    After its initial run of popularity, "Strange Fruit" fell into disuse for many years—the victim of the conservatism of one era, the idealism and hopefulness of another, and the disillusionment of a third. Josh White and Nina Simone were among the few artists to attempt it in the 1950s and 1960s. But recently many other musicians—from Sting to Dee Dee Bridgewater to Tori Amos to Cassandra Wilson to UB40 to Siouxsie and the Banshees—have recorded "Strange Fruit," each cut an act of courage given Holiday's continuing hold over the song. (That might not apply to 101 Strings, which recorded an orchestral version.) Sidney Bechet did an instrumental version shortly after Holiday's own record appeared; though it contained no words, Victor chose not to release it for many years.

    The song now pops up in many places. Leon Litwack, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, uses it in his classes at the University of California at Berkeley, and Stephen Bright cites it in "Capital Punishment: Race, Poverty and Disadvantage," a class he teaches in the law schools of Harvard, Yale, and Emory. Don Ricco, a teacher in Novato, California, plays it for his eighth-graders when they're studying the Civil War; while they review the tortured saga of American race relations, they can also learn about the power of metaphor. "Strange Fruit" is what Mickey Rourke inexplicably puts on his turntable to seduce Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks (predictably, it fails miserably as mood music). A federal appeals court judge cited it a few years ago to show that execution by hanging was inherently "cruel and unusual." It was banned from South African radio during the apartheid era. Khallil Abdul Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan's notoriously anti-Semitic disciple and maestro of the "Million Man March," has quoted it in speeches assailing American racism—unaware, apparently, that the song was written by a white Jewish schoolteacher from New York City.

    That schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the pen name "Lewis Allan," had not written the song for Holiday; several others, including Meeropol's wife, Anne, had sung it before her. And yet, so completely did Holiday come to own "Strange Fruit" that Meeropol—who is better remembered nowadays for adopting the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg following their parents' execution than for his thousands of other songs and poems—spent half a lifetime, starting with the moment the song became famous, reminding people that it was really his creation, and his alone.

    It didn't always work; no one could seem to accept that so potent a song could come from so prosaic a source. Various articles saddled Meeropol with a wide range of purported collaborators. One French magazine described him as the headmaster of a school for blacks somewhere along the Mississippi. "One Lewis Allen [sic] is cited as the author of `Strange Fruit,' but did he compose both words and music?" the composer and diarist Ned Rorem, a passionate Holiday devotee, wrote in the New York Times in 1995, nine years after Meeropol's death. "Indeed, who was he? Was he black?" (To the organizers of a celebration of music by black composers at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1999, the answer was yes, for they included "Strange Fruit" on the program.)

    In a way, Meeropol sealed his particular fate, his status as a historical footnote, when he decided that it was Billie Holiday to whom he'd bring the song: she, more than any other artist ever could have, effectively made it her own." When you listen to her, it's almost like an audio tape of her autobiography," said Tony Bennett, who called "Strange Fruit" a "magnificent" song. "She didn't sing anything unless she had lived it."

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Table of Contents

Song Excerpt

Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange Fruit hanging from the poplar trees. 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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2000

    Don't Explain.

    The most accessible text for the jazz-fan. Photos in b/w, and quotes from the day help take you back to a time that many would like to forget. The book, and Billie's wonderful work, is a testament to the cultural sledgehammer that Jazz is. The discography is great..includes Abbey Lincoln's tribute album ---you should hear her do 'Pig Foot'!

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