The haunting lyrics of “Strange Fruit” paint a picture of a rural American South where political and psychological terror reigns over African American communities.
“Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze,” sang blues legend Billie Holiday in her powerful 1939 recording of the song, “Strange Fruit Hanging from the Poplars.” The lyrics of the song describe the daily violence inflicted on black people. And Holiday dared to play it – in front of a black and white audience, alike.
“She wanted to make a statement with this song. There was something about standing in front of a white audience and being brave enough to face the ongoing crime in the United States, ”says Karsonya (Kaye) Wise Whitehead, associate professor of African and African American studies at Loyola University of Maryland. “The writing wasn’t just about the past – it was happening then.”
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“A strange fruit” began as a poem
More than 4,000 blacks were publicly murdered in the United States between 1877 and 1950, according to the 2015 Equal Justice Initiative report, Lynching in America. “Strange Fruit” was written for a decade when activist organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People urged lawmakers to make lynching a federal crime. But the efforts of the NAACP have been continually overthrown by white supremacists in the Democratic Party who have used obstructionists to defeat these bills.
Abel Meeropol, an American Jew whose family had fled the pogroms in Tsarist Russia, wrote “Bitter Fruit” as a reflection on the August 7, 1930 photo of the lynchings of J. Thomas Shipp and Abraham S. Smith in Marion, Indiana. Shipp, 18, Smith, 19 and 16, James Cameron have been charged with theft, murder and rape. Cameron was able to escape the crowds, but Shipp and Smith were dragged out of their jail cells and beaten to death. The photo shows the bodies of Shipp and Smith hanging from nooses as a crowd of white people watch them. A man looks back at the camera showing the atrocity.
Under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, Meeropol set his poem to music and performed “Bitter Fruit” as a protest song in the New York area alongside his wife Anne. They even performed it at Madison Square Garden with blues singer Laura Duncan. The song, now known as “Strange Fruit,” was introduced to Billie Holiday in late 1938, just as she booked a series of shows at Barney Josephson’s Café Society, New York’s first racially integrated nightclub. York.
Holiday’s performances left audiences silent
After overcoming a reluctance to tackle it, Holiday made “Strange Fruit” their closing signature. As her set was drawing to a close, the waiters stopped serving. Next, Holiday would sit alone on a stool with only the microphone and a pin to her face as she sang. After the last lines: “Here is a fruit for the 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” —a an icy silence often followed and Holiday left the stage.
“When the lights came back on, she would be gone, there would be no recall,” Whitehead said. “She would be off the stage – that was her request – but she just wanted to let the song stay there. And that would be his final statement. And they often talk about how uncomfortable white audiences would be to clap. “
Whitehead, who is also the founding director of the Karson Institute for Race, Peace and Social Justice, adds, “We often think of Billie Holiday as a singer. And we think of black women back then as great singers, but I don’t think we talk enough about them using their platform to take a stand against injustice and then the cost and price that they have. paid for it.
A Time The magazine reviewer attended Holiday’s performance and wrote a column about it, featuring photos of Billie Holiday as well as the song’s lyrics. “When Billie appeared in Time, which gave it such prestige, ”recalls Barney Josephson in his book Cafe Society: the wrong place for the right people. “It made Billie a black artist who had something to say and said it, had the nerve to say it, to sing it.
“ Strange Fruit ” named song of the century
Holiday may not have predicted the impact on her Time a magazine review would have done it, but she understood the power of song. Holiday’s vocal and improvisational abilities gave Meeropol poetic strength and emotional impact.
“The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake and I was right to be afraid,” Holiday writes in his autobiography, Lady sings the blues. “There wasn’t even an applause when I finished. Then a single person started to applaud nervously. Then suddenly everyone was applauding.
Holiday went on to record “Strange Fruit” with the jazz label Commodore Records on April 20, 1939. The song helped raise Holiday to national notoriety – at just 23 years old.
Not all audiences appreciated Holiday’s interpretation of the song. Among them was the director of the Federal Narcotics Bureau, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger, who openly espoused racist views, ensured that Holiday, who battled drug use, was targeted, prosecuted and arrested in 1947 for drug possession. She was sent to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia for a year. Upon his release, Holiday was not allowed to obtain a cabaret performer’s license.
Despite her struggles, Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit” continued to resonate – and it remains among her best-selling recordings. In 1999, Time The magazine named Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” the “Song of the Century.”