delanceyplace.com 10/26/07 - strange fruit
In today's excerpt - Billie Holiday (1915-1959), considered by some to be the greatest female jazz vocalist, introduces 'Strange Fruit', a song about lynching, into a world of songs about love and romance:
"A few years back, Q, a British music publication, named 'Strange Fruit' one of 'the ten songs that actually changed the world.' Like any revolutionary act, the song initially encountered great resistance. Holiday and the black folksinger Josh White, who began performing it a few years after Holiday first did [in 1939], were abused, sometimes physically, by irate nightclub patrons—'crackers' as Holiday called them. Columbia Records, Holiday's label in the late 1930s, refused to record it. ... 'Strange Fruit' marked a watershed, praised by some, lamented by others, in Holiday's evolution from exuberant jazz singer to chanteuse of lovelorn pain and loneliness. Once Holiday added it to her repertoire, some of its sadness seemed to cling to her; as she deteriorated physically, the song took on new poignancy and immediacy. ...
"Lynchings—during which blacks were murdered with unspeakable brutality, often in a carnival-like atmosphere, and then, with the acquiescence if not the complicity of local authorities, hung from trees for all to see—were rampant in the South following the Civil War and for many years thereafter. According to figures kept by the Tuskegee Institute—conservative figures—between 1889 and 1940, 3,833 people were lynched; ninety percent of them were murdered in the South, and four-fifths of them were black. Lynchings tended to occur in poor, small towns—often taking the place the famed newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken once said, 'of the merry-go-round, the theater, the symphony orchestra.' ... And they were meted out for a host of alleged offenses—not just for murder, theft and rape, but for insulting a white person, boasting, swearing or buying a car. In some instances, it was no infraction at all; it was just time to remind 'uppity' blacks to stay in their place. ...
"The night that she first sang 'Strange Fruit' [at Cafe Society in New York] 'there wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished,' she later wrote in her autobiography. 'Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then, suddenly, everybody was clapping.' The applause grew louder and a bit less tentative as 'Strange Fruit' became a nightly ritual for Holiday, then one of her most successful records, then one of her signature songs, at least in those places where it was safe to perform."
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.
|Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song|
|Copyright 2001 by David Margolick|
|8, 19-20, 3-4|