Billie Holiday’s Song 'Strange Fruit'

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Art works as a vehicle as a means of bringing awareness, change, and self-expression. Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ shed light on the maltreatment of the African American community which revolutionized the way the public perceived the issue.

From cruel backlash to public appraisal, ‘Strange Fruit’ made a lasting impression. Jewish communist, Abel Meeropol, wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. Meeropol was a high school teacher in the Bronx and often wrote songs, poems, and plays. He first published ’Bitter Fruit', a poem, in the New York magazine in 1937, but later decided to change bitter to strange because the word was too judgmental. ‘Strange Fruit’ was often sung by his wife and several friends and “quickly became a fixture at leftwing gatherings” in 1938 (Lynskey, 20). Eventually, the song was performed at Madison Square Garden by Laura Duncan.

Meanwhile, Billie Holiday had just been released from jail and sang at Harlem jazz clubs. Here, she caught the attention producer John Hammond. With his help, she became one of the most well-known stars of the swing era (Lynskey, 18). Eventually, Billie began performing at Cafe Society, a “club where blacks and whites worked together behind the floodlights and sat together out front”, according to club owner Barney Josephson. Josephson did his best to ensure black musicians were treated equally like his white customers (Lynskey, 12). Cafe Society, called ‘The Wrong Place for the Right People’, was unique to New York because it sometimes gave black patrons the privilege of having the best seats in the club. Holiday’s presence at Cafe Society helped popularize the club, having already made a name for herself in Count Basie’s band. It was at Cafe Society where she was first introduced to ‘Strange Fruit’. Billie Holiday was brought ‘Strange Fruit’ after Meeropol played it for Josephson.

There is controversy regarding Billie’s initial response to the song. She claims to have “dug it right off”, since it reminded her of what had killed her father (Davis, 231). However, Meeropol believed she was unimpressed and didn’t think she felt comfortable performing it. He states Holiday was “not communicative” and only asked what the word pastoral meant. Josephson’s story supports the idea that Holiday wasn’t aware of the song’s meaning. According to him, she only sang the song because he asked her to do so. Regardless if Holiday grasped its meaning the first time around, she eventually came around to understanding it on a personal level. Josephson recalls seeing a tear run down her cheek during a performance and to him, that’s when he understood that Billie grasped its significance.

Billie’s performance was groundbreaking. She recalled being “scared people would hate it”, that it had been a “mistake” because of the irregular pattern of applause the audience delivered immediately after her performance; but it wasn’t long before everyone was clapping. Meeropol described her performance as “startling, dramatic, and an effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere” (Lynskey, 21). To him, Billie fulfilled the manner in which he hoped it would be performed, highlighting the bitterness and shock quality, and even achieved the reaction he hoped the song would get, which reminded him of why he wrote it in the first place.

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‘Strange Fruit’ became pivotal in Holiday’s nightly performances. Josephson laid out rules for the performance: she would close with the song, all waiters would stop services before it was played, there would only be one light in the room which focused on Holiday, and no encore. Josephson hoped to achieve a certain sentiment amongst the crowd; he wanted people “to remember ‘Strange Fruit’ - to get their insides burned by it”. The performance struck people; conversations suddenly ended, people left their drinks untouched and cigarettes unlit. Commonly, “customers either clapped till their hands were sore, or walked out in disgust” (Lynskey, 22).

Holiday’s performance was not always well received. Holiday’s own record label, Columbia Records, turned down her request to record it. Some self-claimed progressive radio stations refused to play it, and the BBC banned it. The song was generally played in safe locations which held similar sentiments of the injustices in the African American community, but even then, the song wasn’t always well received. Holiday recalls there always being trouble whenever ‘Strange Fruit’ was performed. There was once an incident when “she was driven out of Mobile, Alabama, for trying to sing it”. In other clubs, she wasn’t allowed to play the song. The song was also criticized by Time magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)” (Margolick, 18). Though Holiday was sometimes ordered to not perform to the song by producers, she fought back and made it her right to have the option in her contracts.

The song began to take a toll on Billie. She began to be physically abused by guests. Josephson shared of a night “when a Southern woman, traumatized by memories of a lynching she once witnessed, followed Billie into her dressing room and tried to tear off her dress” (Margolick, 6). With the occasional backlash she would receive and her spiraling heroin addiction, Holiday lost her lightness. She began to perform the song less and less, and it was agonizing to watch, when she did. “The worse her mood, the more likely she was to add it to the set, yet it pained her every time, especially when it prompted walkouts by racist audience members” (Lynskey, 15). With time, her body had withered along with her voice, and it became clear the song “dignified her suffering, wrapping her own decline in a wider American tragedy” (Lynskey, 12).

While there was a major backlash, there was lots of approval from the public. After it was released, it became an instant hit and gained attention. Billie Holiday became one of the first African-American to be pictured in Time magazine. Time went on to vote ‘Strange Fruit’ as the song of the century in 1999 (Lynskey, 8). In 2002, it was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress (O'Connor, 7). Billie’s performance got a big thumbs up from former secretary of the NAACP, Walter White, who deemed the song to be beautiful and sang with “extraordinary power” (Indianapolis Recorder). The song even went as far as to influence activist to post copies of the recording for congressmen to promote anti-lynching laws. Angela Davis said it “almost single-handedly changed the politics of American black culture and put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture” (Davis, 267). The song was highly respected within the jazz community. Leonard Feather, a jazz writer, claimed it’s “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism” (Margolick, 4). For Bobby Short, it was “very, very pivotal”, because lynching was no longer confined to the black newspaper, but now a part of the white consciousness (Margolick, 5). Record producer Ahmet Ertegun regarded ‘Strange Fruit’ as “a declaration of war...the beginning of the civil rights movement” (Margolick, 2). Nina Simone, who also had her version of the song claimed the song “did not stir the blood; it chilled it”, which made it the 'ugliest song” she’d heard. It was “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” (Lynskey, 5).

Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ did not die with her. When Donald Trump requested Rebecca Ferguson to perform at his presidential inauguration, she agreed under the condition that she can sing ‘Strange Fruit’. Billie’s song was an early stepping stone for the civil rights movement because it urged listeners to push for equal rights. It remains an example of the influence a music can have to bring social awareness.

Bibliography

  1. Davis, Angela. ​Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday​. Womens, 1999.
  2. “Indianapolis Recorder Archives, Jul 22, 1939, p. 11”. ​NewspaperArchive​, A J, 22 July 1939, http://newspaperarchive.com/indianapolis-recorder-jul-22-1939-p-11/
  3. Lynskey, Dorian. “Strange Fruit: The First Great Protest Song”. ​The Guardian​, Guardian News Robles 7 and Media, 16 Feb. 2011, http://theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/16/protest-songs-billie-holiday-strange-fruit​
  4. Margolick, David. “Performance as a Force for Change: The Case of Billie Holiday and ‘Strange Fruit'” .​The Mutual Dependency of Force and Law in American Foreign Policy on JSTOR​, 1 July 1999, http://jstor.org/stable/27670205?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents​
  5. Roisin O'Connor @Roisin_OConnor. “The Story of 'Strange Fruit' – the Song Rebecca Ferguson Wants to Perform at Trump's Inauguration”. ​The Independent​, Independent Digital News and Media, 3 Jan. 2017, http://independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/strange-fruit-lyrics-song-billie-holiday-rebecca-ferguson-donald-trump-inauguration-a7507091.html.
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Billie Holiday’s Song ‘Strange Fruit’. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/billie-holidays-song-strange-fruit/
“Billie Holiday’s Song ‘Strange Fruit’.” Edubirdie, 08 Sept. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/billie-holidays-song-strange-fruit/
Billie Holiday’s Song ‘Strange Fruit’. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/billie-holidays-song-strange-fruit/> [Accessed 23 Apr. 2024].
Billie Holiday’s Song ‘Strange Fruit’ [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Sept 08 [cited 2024 Apr 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/billie-holidays-song-strange-fruit/
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