About Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
David Margolick, Strange Fruit:
Billy Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Running Press)
"It wasn't a pop hit," we learn in David Margolick's book about the song, "Strange Fruit," "but black intellectuals were very much affected by it."
In this riveting account of a song which cut across all sorts of boundaries (was it art? was it pop? was it jazz? was it folk?) Margolick tells us that "Strange Fruit" was honored at a celebration of music by black composers at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in 1999. In addition, writes Margolick, "Khallil Abdul Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan's notoriously anti-Semitic disciple and maestro of the 'Million Man March,' has quoted it in speeches assailing American racism--unaware, apparently, that the song was written by a white Jewish schoolteacher from New York City":
That schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the pen name "Lewis Allan," had not written the song for [Billie] Holiday; several others, including Meeropol's wife, Anne, had sung it before her. And yet, so completely did Holiday come to own "Strange Fruit" that Meeropol--who is better remembered nowadays for adopting the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg following their parents' execution than for his thousands of other songs and poems--spent half a lifetime, starting with the moment the song became famous, reminding people that it was really his creation, and his alone.
"I wrote 'Strange Fruit' because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it," Meeropol--a political activist whom Margolick calls a "closet Communist"-- said in 1971. Meeropol's occasional collaborator, Earl Robinson--who himself wrote "Ballad for Americans" and "Joe Hill"--admired Meeropol's "inexhaustible ability to turn out topical lyrics." Meeropol "wrote incessantly--poems, ballads, musicals, plays--all using the nom de plume 'Lewis Allan,' the names of his two natural-born children, neither of whom survived infancy." Apart from "Strange Fruit," he is also known for his lyrics to "'The House I Live In' (a paean to tolerance co-written by Earl Robinson and sung by Frank Sinatra in a short film that won a special Oscar in 1945)."
Meeropol produced "Strange Fruit" in 1939, when Gone with the Wind was delighting American audiences and when Billie Holiday--born April 7, 1915--was only twenty-four years old. "But," cautions Margolick, "she had already experienced enough prejudice and despair by then--including time in a home for wayward black children, then in a whorehouse, where she first heard the recordings of Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong--to call herself a 'race woman.'" In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday tries to foist off various bits of misinformation about the song, including the assertion that it was written for her. Challenged at one point, she is said to have remarked, "Shit, man, I ain't never read that book"--though her publisher apparently insisted that she "read and sign every page of the manuscript."
When Meeropol first played the song for Holiday at the progressive night club, Cafe Society, she was not overly impressed. "I feel quite sure," Meeropol wrote later, "that if Barney Josephson and Bob Gordon had not been so impressed by the song, it may never have been sung by Billie Holiday because it was so different from the usual genre of songs to which she lent her unique voice." The Holiday whom Meeropol remembered "was 'not communicative at all'...and...asked only one question about the song: what did 'pastoral' mean?" Much later, Holiday is asked the same question by Maya Angelou's son, Guy. Her answer is searing:
It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That's what it means.
Margolick's book is a short but wonderfully complex evocation of the many contexts and lives Abel Meeropol's song touched. Not everyone "liked" "Strange Fruit": Paul Robeson felt the song portrayed blacks as victims, record producer Jerry Wexler thought that "a lot of people who had tin ears and who wouldn't know a melody if it hit them in the head embraced the song only because of its politics." But those who felt its power never forgot it. Strange Fruit is full of wonderful descriptions of Holiday singing the song:
"The words told the story but her face never reflected any emotion," he said. "You listened to every word; it was like watching water drop slowly from a faucet. It was as if she was singing 'Ave Maria' or 'Amazing Grace.'"
But perhaps the best way to end this paper is simply to quote Meeropol's lyrics--words whose complexities went further than their author ever envisioned. What the author wrote is a little clunky, a little too "poetic." His words lack wit; they are a little over the top. The rhymes are obvious; no one would mistake them for Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter. Indeed, Margolick points out that by the time the song was written lynchings were no longer a major issue in the South.
Yet "Strange Fruit" thrusts us into a reality which it seems barely possible for a mere "popular song" to encompass. "The first phonograph recording in America of a popular song that has lynching as its theme." Was there ever a second such "popular song"? "Strange Fruit" bent and stretched so many categories one can scarcely keep count. A song with a line like "Black body swinging in the Southern breeze" is almost impossible to sentimentalize. Especially as it was sung by the incomparable, self-destructive Billie Holiday, it acted upon its audiences with all the complexity and enigma of disturbing, innovative, genuine art:
Billie Holiday, buxom blues singer at New York's
swank Cafe Society night club in Sheridan Square, is now heard
in what is believed to be the first phonograph recording in America
of a popular song that has lynching as its theme.
--The New York Age, a black-owned weekly, June, 1939
She didn't sing anything unless she had lived
--Tony Bennett on Billie Holiday
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