Given the open racism of white supremacists and the murder of blacks in America today, Meeropol’s words and the transmission of Billie Holiday bring great meaning to new generations of listeners and performers.
In March 1939, Holiday threw the emotional song bomb on the audience of her Cafe Society. Dorian Lynskey starred in his 2011 story Strange Fruit: The First Great Protest Song.
It’s a clear, crisp New York night in March 1939. You are on a date and have decided to investigate a new club in a former speakeasy on West 4th Street: Cafe Society called “The Wrong Place for the” Right People “. Even if you can’t get the gag on the way in – the bouncers wear ragged clothing – the penny drops when you step into the 200-seat L-shaped basement and see the satirical murals depicting Manhattan’s high society Faking waves Unusually for a New York nightclub, black guests are not only welcome, but also privileged with the best seats in the house.
You heard the excitement for the resident singer, a 23-year-old black woman named Billie Holiday who made a name for herself in Harlem with Count Basie’s band. She has golden brown, almost Polynesian skin, a mature figure and a single gardenia in her hair. She has a way of owning the room, but it’s not flashy. Her voice is plump and looking for pleasure, nudging and caressing a song until it brings out more pleasure than the author intended, and brings a spark of liveliness and a measure of coolness to even the fancier material.
And then it happens. The house lights go out and Holiday is lit by the hard white beam from a single spotlight.
She starts her last number.
The rest is history, as Rolling Stone writer David Browne describes.
Holiday wasn’t immediately sure if her audience wanted to hear the song. “I was afraid people would hate it,” she wrote in her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. “The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I was right to be scared. When I finished, there wasn’t even any applause. Then a lonely person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone clapped. “Strange Fruit” became the focus of Holiday’s set, which is often performed at the end of the show for maximum impact. A critic wrote at the time: “The song is by far the most effective shout that Miss Holiday has uttered against the injustice of a Christian country.”
Fear of controversy, Holiday’s label, Columbia, decided not to record the song, so Holiday turned to a smaller label, Commodore, and cut it in 1939. Between the sparse, bohemian arrangement and lively lyrics, their recording of “Strange Fruit” became a sensation and a hit for Holiday when it was released by Commodore that year.
It is time for us to listen.
The performance of Holiday made music history.
The recent release of Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, starring Andra Day in the title role, sparked interest not only in Strange Fruit, but also in Holiday, her life and her music. Day also won the 2021 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her powerful portrayal.
As a side note, I have a personal connection to Strange Fruit through my father, which I explored in 2008 in Strange Fruit Revisited.
When I listen to the song today, I also think of another strange fruit, the novel by Lillian Smith, published in 1944 and performed on Broadway in 1945.
It was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer and played Jane White (daughter of civil rights leader and NAACP founder Walter White), Robert Earl Jones (father of James Earl Jones Jr.) and George B. Oliver, my father.
In hindsight, the controversy that welcomed the 1944 release of Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit seems unusually hot. This novel of interracial love has been denounced for its “profanity” in many places, although sex is barely mentioned.
Massachusetts banned it for a short time; likewise the US Post. But the book has had many admirers in the years since its publication. It was a commercial success – a bestseller, or Broadway play for short – and it remains in print in many languages. From her home on Old Screamer Mountain near Clayton, Georgia, Smith knew that many of her neighbors had bought the book, but she was cursed in public.
Growing up I played the version of Holiday over and over and aroused my desire to fight for change. I got involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and added Nina Simone’s legendary 1965 version to my “most played” collection of songs.
J’na Jefferson explored the covers of “Strange Fruit” in December.
“Strange Fruit” was a perfect song for Nina Simone. She often drew attention to deeper social issues through her recordings and performances. “[‘Strange Fruit’] is about the ugliest song I’ve ever heard, ”said Simone once. “Ugly in the sense that it’s violent and tears in the bowels of what white people have done to my people in this country.”
Miss Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” from her 1965 album Pastel Blues uses solemn piano instruments (one of the sonic hallmarks of the project) to create a thematic, emotional bellybeat that reverberates to this day. Her transformative version uses a minimalist rather than a jazzy palette of sound, forcing you to sit with the heavy imagery and her palpable, grief-filled tone.
Simone does not appear as an artist, but as a person with a visceral connection to the respective topic. As she nibbles on the keys, she screams on behalf of her breed. Her emotionally tense voice trembles as she describes a deceased black body rotting in the sun. As she sings for the body to be removed, she whines to heaven and asks for the violence to stop without actually saying it.
As we move on in the struggle for justice, Strange Fruit will resonate with generations to come amid today’s lynching of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Until we put an end to the genocide – meIncluding horrors like we saw in Atlanta this week.
Until that day, the artists will continue to sing.
Here is a fruit the crows can pluck
So that the rain collects, so that the wind sucks
So that the sun rots, so that the tree falls
Here is a strange and bitter harvest