Christel Prestidge, « “Strange Fruit”, Billie Holiday »

 

Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit” at Café Society in 1939.

In the year of 1938, the music scene was shaken when jazz singer Billie Holiday performed at a New York City nighclub called Cafe Society. The song she sang that evening was unlike any other that had come before it. “Strange Fruit” was its title, and the lyrics, described the lynching of African-Americans in Southern America. The song was originally a poem, written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish School teacher from the Bronx. Billie Holiday’s voice and performance brought the song to national fame.

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   Holiday’s performances sparked conflict and controversy wherever she went. The lyrics stood as a powerful protest against racism in America becoming the most popular protest song of our time. Between 1881 and 1968, 3,446[1] Black Americans died at the hands of lynch mobs. Among the most unsettling realities of lynchings is the degree to which white Americans embraced the brutal murders as a wholesome celebration. This is the shocking reality that inspired Abel Meeropol to write a powerful poem that motivated Americans to fight for change.

    Was “Strange Fruit” primarily a cry for civil rights or was it a reflection of Billie Holiday’s tortured soul, the soul of an african-American who was consumed but survived the racism of that era ? Or did she ?

 

“Strange Fruit” – Lyrics

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies 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 magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

 

The Story Behind “Strange Fruit”. The Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith

Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, 1930, Marion Indian.

   The night of August 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two young African-Americans were arrested for allegedly murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter and raping his companion, Mary Ball[2], in Marion, Indiana. A third African-American suspect, 16-year-old James Cameron, was also arrested for participating in the crime. When Deeter died at the hospital, the police removed his bloody shirt and hung it from the flagpole of police headquarters for the entire city to see. The “bloody shirt was like waving a red flag in front of a bull”[3] said Cameron. The news that two whites had been attacked by three black youths spread quickly. Over the next 24 hours, thousands of people driven by rage and excitement, flooded into Marion. The jail was stormed by a mob of 10,000 people. The police were unable to control the inflamed mob. They were armed with sledgehammers and crowbars. They broke into the jail and took Thomas Shipp from his cell and beat him. He was dead before he reached the tree in the county courthouse square. The mob then went back into the jail to get Abram Smith, dragging him a block and a half to the courthouse square. Smith was alive throughout the entire ordeal. They put a noose around his neck and as he was being lifted, Abram tried to grab the rope to prevent himself from choking. They lowered him down and broke his arms. The third suspect, James Cameron barely escaped being lynched himself. As they were tying the noose around his neck, a woman intervened saying he had nothing to do with the rape and murder.[4] The town photographer, Lawrence Beitler, set up his equipment and took a picture of the scene which looked like a gathering at the County Fair. The tree had blossomed its “Strange Fruit”.

   After the picture was taken, the mob took strips of Thomas and Abram’s clothes as souvenirs. One person took home a shoe to display on their mantle. The most prized souvenir was a piece of the rope. When the coroner arrived to take the bodies down, the crowd refused. They wanted the bodies to hang as a warning to the blacks.

   A few years later, in 1937, Abel Meeropol, who may be better recognized under his alias, Lewis Allan, came across the grotesque photograph of the double hanging. Haunted by this image, Meeropol wrote a poem entitled “Bitter Fruit.” The poem was published in the union-run New York Teacher magazine in 1937, the same time that African-Americans in the South were being lynched by white supremacist groups. After setting the words to music, the song was performed by black singer Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden. Although she was the first to sing “Strange Fruit”, it did not take on the same aura as when Billie Holiday interpreted it. The song was introduced to Holiday by Barney Josephson, the owner of Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York’s first integrated nightclub, a place catering to progressive types with open minds.

 

Who was Billie Holiday ?

   Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in 1915 in Philadelphia. Her father, a jazz musician, abandoned the family when she was a young girl, leaving Billie and her mother Sadie to struggle alone. Billie was often left in the care of abusive relatives while her mother was working to make ends meet. She spent most of her childhood running errands in a Baltimore brothel, “just about the only place where black and white folks could meet in a natural way”[5]. This is where she discovered her love for jazz. At age 10, Holiday was raped and sent to a Catholic reform school for allegedly “seducing her attacker”[6]. Shortly after her release, she followed her mother to New York, where she turned to prostitution and was arrested for solicitation when she was just a teen. In the early 1930s, she began singing in Harlem jazz clubs, where she caught the eye of producer John Hammond. She adopted the stage name Billie Holiday, a combination of Billie Dove, a popular film star from the 1920s and her father’s surname. Before long, Billie Holiday became one of the most influential jazz singers of all time.

 

Billie Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit

   In the beginning, Holiday did not feel completely comfortable with the song, she was fearful of retaliation given the song’s charged content. However she eventually agreed to perform the song as it touched a chord in her. She also was subjected to racism throughout her life. The song helped her express her sentiments. At the age of 23 in 1938, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” for the first time at Café Society. The song was so powerful that certain rules were set by the owner of the Café. The waiters would stop all service during the performance of the song. The room would be in darkness except for a bright spotlight on Holiday’s face. “Strange Fruit” would be the last song of the evening and there would be no encore.

   The lyrics and music convey the heavy truth of lynchings in America and haunt you even when the song is over. The impact of the song lies in the subtle, yet, intense performance and delivery by Billie Holiday. The juxtaposition of the beautiful landscape, the scents of flowers and fruits, with the blood and broken bones of human beings brutally beaten gives a powerful and poignant feeling to the song. During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed as if she were evoking a prayer. The introduction begins on the piano in the key of B-flat minor, known for creating a darker sound. When Holiday begins singing, the instruments fade into the background, leaving her voice and the lyrics to dominate and become the listener’s focus. The song was sung in a low-range, emphasizing the seriousness of the lyrics and creating a gloomy atmosphere. Holiday’s articulation accentuates the meaning of the words. As Billie sings the last line “here is a strange and bitter crop”, it leaves the listener disturbed. With the final note of the song, the spotlight would go out and when the lights came back on, Holiday would be gone from the stage. Customers either clapped until their hands hurt, or walked out in disgust. It was the first time a black artist had sung such controversial lyrics. On the last day of 1999, Time magazine named her first studio version, “the song of the century.”[7]

 

The impact of “Strange Fruit”

   “Strange Fruit” was not by any means the first protest song; nevertheless, it was the first to express an explicit political message into the scene of entertainment. The jazz writer Leonard Feather considered “Strange Fruit” to be “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.”[8] The song was unquestionably the first significant protest song and the first direct musical attack upon lynchings in the South. The song helped move the tragedy of lynching from the black press and into the white consciousness.

   “Strange Fruit” gained popularity in the Civil Rights Movement when Nina Simone covered the song giving it a more dramatizing slant. Simone called “Strange Fruit”: “The ugliest song I have ever heard. Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”[9] The song exposed racial hatred at a time when protest music was unknown. 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. »[10] Although many artists went on to record the song, they have never come close to Holiday’s interpretation.

 

Holiday’s relationship with the song

   Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” each time she performed. She even went to the extreme to write it into her contracts that she had the choice to use it in her repertoire as some club owners prefered that she exclude it. This is because racist customers would walk out. Eventually, after years of performing “Strange Fruit”, she began to decline physically. Her voice became raspy. Her body became ravaged. Eyes bulging and mouth twisted as she interpreted her biggest hit. Some say, she became the song, embodied. In Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, the author, David Margolick wrote: “she had grown oddly, sadly suited to capture the full grotesqueness of the song. Now, she not only sang of bulging eyes and twisted mouths. She embodied them. » It was as if the song, having lived inside her for so long, had finally warped its host.”

   “Strange Fruit” became the most famous protest song of its era However it is unclear as to what extent it succeeded in heightening the awareness of racism in America. It was a strong cry for civil rights. Who ever heard the song never forgot the lyrics. They were engraved in their memories. Billie Holiday became the first musical interpreter to support civil rights through the most evocative lyrics of all time. Sadly, the song haunted Holiday for the rest of her life. Her manager was said to say it robbed her of her lightness. The racism she was fighting against through “Strange Fruit” poisoned her life just as it poisoned the life of every black American.

    “Strange fruit” opened the door between the relationship of politics and music for decades to come.

 

Christel Prestidge (Master 1 Anglais)

 

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Notes:

[1] According to the Tuskegee Institute. However, all lynchings were not accounted for.

[2] Mary Ball later testified she had not been raped. Cameron admitted that Shipp and Smith had shot and killed Claude Deeter.

[3] Cameron discussed these events in his memoir, A time of Terror (1982).

[4] In A Time of Terror by James Cameron.

[5] Lynskey Dorian, “Strange Fruit: The first great protest song”, The Guardian. February 15, 2011.

[6] In Billie’s Blues: Biography of Billie Holiday by John Chilton.

[7] McNally Owen (March 30, 2000). “’Song of the century’ chilling: Graphic lyrics of ‘the first unmuted cry against racism’ are making a comeback.” Ottawa Citizen.

[8] “Review: Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights”, The New York Times, 2000.

[9] In Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song by David Margolick.

[10] Lynskey Dorian, “Strange Fruit: The first great protest song”, The Guardian. February 15, 2011.

 

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Bibliography:

– Margolick David. Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song. Ecco. 2001.

– Clarke Donald. Billie Holiday: Wishing On the Moon. Da Capo Press. 2002.

– Margolick David. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Running Press. 2000.

– Chilton John. Billie’s Blues: Biography of Billie Holiday. Quartet Books. 1975.

– Aida Amoako, “Strange Fruit: the most shocking song of all time”, Songs that made history, BBC. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190415-strange-fruit-the-most-shocking-song-of-all-time

– “Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit,” YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnlTHvJBeP0

– Moore Edwin. “Strange Fruit is still a song for today”. The September 18, 2010.

 – Bass Erin Z. “The Strange Life of Strange Fruit”. Deep South Magazine. December 12, 2012

 – Crystal Billie. 700 Sundays. Grand Central Publishing. 2006.

– Ayre Maggie, “Strange Fruit: A protest song with endurance relevance”, BBC News. November 25, 2013.

– Lynskey Dorian, “Lynskey Dorian, “Strange Fruit: The first great protest song”, The Guardian. February 15, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/16/protest-songs-billie-holiday-strange-fruit


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