Given open white supremacist racism and the murder of blacks in America today, Meeropol’s lyrics and Billie Holiday’s performance carry great meaning to new generations of listeners and performers.
It was in March 1939 that Holiday launched the emotional bombshell on his Cafe Society audience. Dorian Lynskey sets the scene in her 2011 story “Strange Fruit: the first great protest song. “
It’s a clear and cool New York night in March 1939. You’re on a date and you’ve decided to investigate a new club in an old speakeasy on West 4th Street: Cafe Society, which goes by the name ” The Wrong Place for the The Right People “. Even if you don’t get the gag on entering – the doormen wear ragged clothes – then the penny drops when you enter the L-shaped basement with a capacity of 200 and see the satirical murals usurping Manhattan’s high society. Unusually for a New York nightclub, black patrons are not only welcome, but privileged with the best seats in the house.
You’ve heard the buzz about the resident singer, a 23-year-old black woman called Billie Holiday who made a name for themselves 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 she’s not flashy. Her voice is plump and in search of pleasure, spiking and caressing a song until it gives more delight than its author expected, bringing a spark of liveliness and a measure of freshness to even more hokier material. .
And then it happens. The lights in the house go out, leaving Holiday illuminated by the harsh, white beam of a single spotlight.
She’s starting her last issue.
The rest is history, like Rolling stone writer David Browne described.
Holiday was not immediately sure his audience would want 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 afraid. There wasn’t even an applause when I finished. Then a single person started to applaud nervously. Then suddenly everyone was applauding. “Strange Fruit” became the centerpiece of the Holiday ensemble, often performed at the end of the show for maximum effect. As one reviewer wrote at the time, “The song is by far the most effective cry that the Miss Holiday race has given against the injustice of a Christian country.”
Fearing controversy, Holiday’s label, Columbia, chose not to record the song, so Holiday turned to a smaller label, Commodore, and cut it in 1939. Between their sparse and unconventional arrangement and lively lyrics, his 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.
Holiday’s performance went on to make music history.
Lee Daniels ‘recent outing’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, featuring Andra’s Day in the titular role, awakened interest not only in “Strange Fruit”, but also in Holiday, his life and his music. Day also won the 2021 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for its powerful performance.
By the way, I have a personal connection to ‘Strange Fruit’, through my father, which I explored in 2008 ”Strange Fruit ‘revisited.“
Listening to the song today, I also think of another Strange fruit, Lillian Smith’s novel, published in 1944, then staged on Broadway in 1945.
It was produced and directed by Jose Ferrer, and starred Jane White, (daughter of the civil rights leader and founder of the NAACP Walter white) Robert Earl Jones (father of James Earl Jones Jr.) and George B. Oliver, my father.
Looking back, the controversy that welcomed the publication of Lillian Smith Strange fruit in 1944 seems unusually heated today. This interracial romance novel has been denounced in many places for its “obscenity,” although sex is barely mentioned.
Massachusetts banned it for a short time; it was the same for the American post. But the book had many admirers in the years following its publication. It was a commercial success – a bestseller, a Broadway play briefly – and it remains in print in many languages. From her home atop Old Screamer Mountain near Clayton, Ga., Smith knew many of her neighbors had bought the book, but in public they snubbed her.
Growing up, I played the Holiday version over and over again, fueling my desire to strive for change. I became active in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, and added the iconic 1965 version of Nina Simone to my collection of “most played” songs.
J’na Jefferson explored the covers of “Strange Fruit” in December.
“Strange Fruit” was a perfect song for Nina Simone. She has often drawn attention to deeper social issues through her recordings and performances. “[‘Strange Fruit’] talks about the ugliest song I have ever heard ”, Simone said once. “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears the guts out of what white people have done to my people in this country.”
Featured on his 1965 album Pastel bluesMiss Simone’s vision on “Strange Fruit” finds her using solemn piano instrumentation (one of the sonic hallmarks of the project) to unleash a thematic and emotional punch that still resonates to this day. Its transformative version uses a minimalist sonic palette rather than a jazzy palette, forcing you to sit down with the heavy imagery and its tangible, heartbreak-filled tone.
Simone does not perform as an artist, but as a human being with a visceral connection to the subject in question. As she approaches the keys, she cries out on behalf of her race. Her emotionally strained voice shivers as she describes a dead black body rotting in the sun. As she sings about the body being removed, she moans skyward, begging for the violence to stop without actually saying it.
As we persist in the struggle for justice, amid modern lynchings George floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, “Strange Fruit” will resonate with generations to come. Until we put an end to the racial murder – Iincluding the horrors as we saw in Atlanta this week.
Until that day comes the artists will continue sing.
Here is a fruit for crows to pick
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to fall
Here is a strange and bitter harvest