Intro to Billie Holiday:
– Arguably the most influential singer in jazz after the early 1930s.
– She phrased melodies like a true jazz instrumentalist (w/ creative delivery, rhythmic manipulation, blues inflections)
– Holiday conveyed an unparalleled depth of emotion and sincerity, despite limited range and power.
- 1915 – 1959 (dies at age 44)
- nicknamed “Lady Day” by Lester Young (aka “Prez”)
- started singing in Harlem nightclubs as a young teen.
- “discovered” and later produced by John Hammond.
- makes recording debut at age 18 with Benny Goodman (1933)
- 1930s: records with pianist Teddy Wilson, tours w/ Count Basie Orchestra and Artie Shaw’s band. With Shaw she is one of the first black women to work with a white orchestra, and the first black female singer to tour the South with a white band leader. She becomes an established recording artist.
- 1939: adds “Strange Fruit” to her repertoire at Café Society, in NYC. It becomes her signature tune.
- 1941: co-writes “God Bless the Child” with pianist Arthur Herzog
- Heroin and alcohol had become a problem by the mid-1940s. (She began using during the early ’40s.)
- Holiday reaches her commercial peak by 1947 (poll rankings in DownBeat, Billboard, Esquire and Metronome magazines)
- Died of cirrhosis in 1959.
Strange Fruit – lyrics
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 the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
- the lyricist and composer, of Strange Fruit (1903 – 1986), the “song that foretold a movement”
- he wrote under the name Lewis Allan: the names of his 2 natural-born children (both died as infants)
- In contradiction to her claims (in her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues), Billie Holiday did not write Strange Fruit.
- Who was Abel Meeropol? A white, Jewish, school teacher (English) from NYC.
Political activist, writer, composer, poet, “closet communist” (FBI monitored him)
I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.
– Abel Meeropol, 1971
- It wasn’t written for Holiday. It was originally performed by Meeropol’s wife and others.
- Barney Josephson, the owner of Café Society asked Meeropol to bring in the song for Holiday
Time, Place, Context:
- Holiday debuted the song in 1939 at Café Society, a Greenwich Village night club
- Holiday was only 24 years old.
- 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat
- 25 years before Martin Luther King led his Washington march.
- NY’s only truly integrated night club in 1939.
- located on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.
- It’s patrons included labor leaders, intellectuals, writers, jazz lovers, celebrities, students, and an assortment of leftists (according to historian, David Stowe)
Reaction and Impact:
The song was very, very pivotal — a way of moving the tragedy of lynching out of the black press and into the white consciousness.
– Bobby Short
The first significant protest in words and music. The first unmuted cry against racism.
– Leonard Feather
a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement.
– Ahmet Ertegun co-founder and president of Atlantic Records
the song tackled racial hatred head-on at a time when protest music was all but unknown.
– David Margolick
One of ten songs that actually changed the world.
– Q, a British music publication
She painted a brilliant picture of a horror scene. Its why I love her so, because she was so honest. She wasn’t showing off her voice. She just told us what was going on and it helped to end lynching in the South.
– Abbey Lincoln
- Both Columbia records and producer John Hammond refused to record it, fearing negative reaction from Southern record retailers and radio.
- Some clubs and concert venues refused to let Billie sing Strange Fruit
- She was driven out of Mobile, Alabama for trying to sing it.
- Holiday attacked a racist “after an inappropriate exchange,” according to songwriter Irene Wilson
- She sang it at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia (in 1947), “…’til they made me stop.”
- Between 1889 and 1940, 3,833 people were lynched (according to figures by the Tuskegee Institute)
- Carried out for: murder, rape, insulting a white person, boasting, swearing, buying a car (or for no reason)
- most occurred in small, poor town and often involved the whole community. Carnival-like atmosphere.
- unspeakable brutalities.
- hung from trees
- Rampant in the South post-Civil War. By 1939, only 3 lynchings are recorded to have taken place.
- Congress never managed to pass a federal anti-lynching law. Southern Senators filibustered each bill (including former Senator Richard Russell Jr. from Georgia, for whom the Russell Senate Office Building is named.)
Would Strange Fruit matter matter to us if Billie Holiday had not sung it at a particular time, in New York, and placed all those black bodies in our minds as a way of conveying something about herself, undoubtedly, this most impersonal of biographical artists?”
– from Hilton Als’ essay in the Forward to David Margolick’s book.
- Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit
year recorded: 1939
subject matter: exposing American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans.
YouTube link: https://youtu.be/dnlTHvJBeP0
Wikipedia link(s): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_FruitBook:
“Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights”
by David Margolick.
Running Press, Philadelphia. © 2000 by David Margolick
Autobiography: Lady Sings the Blues (William Duffy, ghostwriter), published in 1956
- Could the song have been sung and appreciated anywhere else in America (other than Café Society in NYC) at that time?
- Are lynchings regularly discussed as a part of American history classes? If not, why not?
- Should other artists sing this song?