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A Strange and Bitter Crop: Billie Holiday’s Song of the Century

Holiday Strange FruitWhen Harry Smith, creator of The Anthology of American Folk Music and dean of American bohemians, received a Grammy just a few months before his death in 1991, he said, “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true–that I saw America changed through music.” In the book Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, David Margolick proposes that racism–a bedrock element of Americanism–was challenged and ultimately changed by a single song, a song sung by Holiday titled “Strange Fruit.”

A whole mythology has grown up around “Strange Fruit,” abetted somewhat by Holiday herself. She claimed that the song was written specifically for her, and, on occasion, that she had written it herself. In truth the song was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish New York City schoolteacher, in 1935, and sung by several other people before Holiday recorded it in 1939. No matter; Holiday’s grimly passionate rendition of this song about lynching left such a stamp of interpretation that even today singers are wary of approaching its devastating text:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

When Holiday cut “Strange Fruit” in 1939, Americans were mobbing theaters to see Gone With the Wind and Ella Fitzgerald was charting with “A-Tisket, a-Tasket.” Congress had failed to pass a federal anti-lynching law, despite a vigorous campaign by the NAACP. A survey taken that year found that more than six in ten Southerners thought lynching to be justified in cases of sexual assault. In the preceding 50 years, there had been nearly 4,000 lynchings; of these, 90 percent had occurred in the South, and four fifths of the victims had been black.

Without SanctuaryThe book Without Sanctuary provides a stark, horrifying photographic account of many of these lynchings. White men wearing hats stand around with their hands on their hips, wearing dumb, smug smiles, while a torn, mutilated body hangs like trussed-up beef from a tree or lamp-post. Supposedly a photograph–quite possibly, according to Margolick, a photograph of the infamous 1930 double lynching in Marion, Indiana–inspired Meeropol to write “Strange Fruit.” (In another fascinating twist to Margolick’s story, Meeropol later adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the Rosenbergs were executed in 1953.)

“Strange Fruit” was first performed in the small social circles of Meeropol’s progressive New York City friends, and then at a fund-raiser for the beleagured Spanish government during the Spanish Civil War. The co-producer of the fund-raiser was also directing the floor show at a Manhattan nightclub called Cafe Society. Integrated and eccentrically egalitarian, located in a former basement speakeasy and decorated with WPA-style murals, Cafe Society was frequented by labor leaders, writers, intellectuals, jazz lovers, celebrities, students, and various leftists. Billie Holiday, a Vocalion singing star, was the featured attraction. “It was probably the only place in America,” Margolick writes, “where ‘Strange Fruit’ could have been sung and savored.”

Margolick details how Meeropol brought the song to Cafe Society owner Barney Josephon, who persuaded Holiday to sing it, and who decreed special stage procedures for presenting it. All service in the nightclub would stop, and all the lights would go out, save for a dim spot on Holiday’s face. According to Margolick, “When she was finished and the light went out, she was to walk off the stage, and no matter how thunderous the ovation, she was never to return for a bow.”

The song created a sensation in the New York media, and pressure for Holiday to record it began to build. But Vocalion, the major label with whom she had an exclusive contract, would have nothing to do with it. She recorded it instead for Commodore, a small label based out of a New York record shop. Her performance, heard today, remains riveting. As Margolick says, “The overt editorializing is minimal; there is no weepiness, nor histrionics…her tone is langurous but unflinching… the intensity mounts until she reaches the word ‘crop,’ which dangles for a time back and forth on a strangely unresolved note like the dead man on the branch.”

“When she recorded it, it was more than revolutionary,” said drummer Max Roach. “She made a statement that we all felt as black folks.” Or, as New York Post columnist Samuel Grafton put it at the time, “The polite conventions between race and race are gone. It is as if we heard what was spoken in the cabins, after the night riders had clattered by.” Not everybody liked the song, though, even among Holiday’s progressive and jazz-loving admirers. John Hammond, the legendary Columbia talent scout who helped “discover” Holiday, said the song was “artistically the worst thing that ever happened to Billie… I think she began taking herself seriously, and thinking of herself as very important… As soon as pop artists think they are contributing to art, something happens to their art.” Well, what did he want, that she keep singing “Miss Brown to You” forever? Hammond’s condescension and outrageousness aside, the song marked a flowering of artistic maturity for Holiday. Her subsequent Commodore and Decca output (disregarding Decca’s ersatz string arrangements) constitute much of her finest work, when her voice retained a measure of youthful resiliency, and the balance of her emotions found a tension between hope and despair.

Margolick’s historical recounting of the song is interspered with testimonies from people who saw Holiday perform the song in concerts and in nightclubs. Josephon describes a woman nearly attacking Holiday at Cafe Society because she’d brought back memories of a lynching the woman had witnessed as a child in the South. An actress who saw Holiday at Birdland in 1952 described the maitre d’ confiscating cigarettes before the song and said, “It (‘Strange Fruit’) was so deeply felt. I understood it. I understood it. I could smell the burning flesh; I felt it. She was… unrelenting is a good word for it…. I thought, ‘That’s what art can do.’”

Holiday led a hard life, and as her problems increased–heroin addiction, jail, abusive lovers–the song took on an added weight for her. Associates describe her listening to her recording of the song in private and weeping along to it; its performance, both public and private, became a kind of ritual for her. She identified with it so thoroughly that she wanted to call her autobiography Bitter Crop, after the last line. (Her publisher insisted on something with the word “blues” in the title.) Few performers, outside of blues and folk singer Josh White, attempted to cover the song, until many years after Holiday’s death in 1959. Margolick talks to some of the singers who have, such as Tori Amos and Cassandra Wilson, and also to a woman who appropriated the song for a lesbian singing group. The issue of the song’s ownership is particularly interesting, given that many of the murders committed against gays amount to what we once called lynchings. It’s just another way in which he proves that this one song does indeed deserve an entire book. At the end of 1999 Time named “Strange Fruit” “Song of the Century;” the sad fact is that it remains relevant. Studs Terkel said, “It’s like that painting (Munch’s The Scream) only in this case you hear it.” Charles Mingus is quoted as saying, “(It) changed my idea of a song telling a story. That music is here to tell the white world the wrongs they done in race.” Vocalist Abbey Lincoln says, “It tells the story of a part of our past that is painful. But the story still needs to be told.” And the song still needs to be sung.

(From an article I wrote in 2000 when Margolick’s book was published. This week’s upcoming Night Lights program will focus on Cafe Society and includes an interview with Terry Trilling-Josephson, co-author of the new book Cafe Society: the Right Place for the Wrong People.)

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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