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Billie Holiday’s Label Wouldn’t Touch ‘Strange Fruit’

The emotive song about lynching in the American South is both a classic and a warning

Billie Holiday sung 'Strange Fruit' throughout her career after first performing the song in 1939. (William J. Gottlieb/Library of Congress)
smithsonian.com

Southern trees bear a 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

Billie Holiday didn’t write “Strange Fruit,” but her voice made it the song it is today. Holiday first recorded it on this day in 1939, less than a month after first performing it at the famed New York club Café Society. Since then, it has become both a classic and a warning: a voice from history addressing the very real and most violent horrors of systemic racism.

“Written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, ‘Strange Fruit’ was not by any means the first protest song,” writes Dorian Lynskey for The Guardian, “but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Unlike the robust workers’ anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it.”

Lynching was in decline by the time Meeropol—stirred by this graphic photograph—wrote the poem that the song uses as lyrics, Lynskey writes. But “it remained the most vivid symbol of American racism, a stand-in for all the more subtle forms of discrimination affecting the black population.”

Meerepol first published his poem in a teachers union publication, and also first set it to music, writes Elizabeth Blair for NPR. “He played it for a New York club owner—who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday,” she writes.

There are conflicting versions of Holiday’s reception, writes Lynskey. While Holiday later said she loved the song from the start, Meerepol said, “To be perfectly frank, I don’t think she felt comfortable with the song.” She first sung it as a favour to Café Society management, according to Meerepol.

It would be hard to blame Holiday for reluctance. ‘Strange Fruit’ never explicitly mentions lynching, but it’s clear what the song is about. And while the celebrity and the visual appeal of Hollywood actors made them early targets for politicians as a means to sway the public, Holiday wasn’t an actor. She was a reasonably well-known singer. And she was black. 

Holiday wrote in her autobiography that singing 'Strange Fruit' reminded her of her father’s death. Clarence Holiday was denied treatment for a lung disorder that ultimately killed him, she wrote, and a vivid song about how racial prejudice could kill reminded her of that. But the reasons for her possible reluctance also made her performance so undeniably powerful, Lynskey writes: “All that she knew and felt about being black in America, she poured into the song.”

Holiday’s regular label was Columbia, but executives there didn’t want to touch ‘Strange Fruit.’ So she took the song to Commodore Records, Lynskey writes, “a small, leftwing operation based at Milt Gabler’s record shop on West 52nd Street.” On this day in 1939, she arrived at the studio with the band from Cafe Society and recorded the song in four hours.

Jazz musician Marcus Miller told Blair that writing and recording the song both took extraordinary courage. “The ‘60s hadn’t happened yet,” he told her. “Things like that weren’t talked about. They certainly weren’t sung about.” 

It became an instant anthem, and Holiday carried the song, like the burden that racism imposes on those in its view, throughout her career, performing it in numerous circumstances and moods as she struggled with fame, racism and a heroin addiction. As for Meerepol, the song’s author, he went on to adopt the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Meerepol’s adopted son Robert told Blair that “he was incredibly soft-hearted.”

The anthem that these two different people created lives on in recordings—including that first one—of Holiday’s rendition. Many others have covered the song, writes Lynskey, but none can touch her performance.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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