If I’m asked to make a choice regarding the one great moment in the history of jazz that changed the face of music forever – my vote would be for the one and only jazz legend and famed vocal great Billie Holiday’s recording and performance of her signature song – the iconic ‘Strange Fruit‘.
I’ve never been a very politically involved or motivated person, but when it comes to certain issues that are close to my heart – I’m notoriously guarded. Being all of 6 years old when Janet Jackson’s politically charged pop masterpiece ‘Rhythm Nation 1814‘ was released, I remember being addicted to the slick beats and ground-breaking videos that Miss Jackson unleashed upon a stunned world. It wasn’t until a few years later though, that the actual message of the album truly got through to me – racism and the importance of education.
History was never my thing either, but music was (thankfully). And it was through music that I traced my way back to the origins of racism – via Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Diana Ross And The Supremes, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington and of course, Lady Day herself, aka Billie Holiday, whose rendition of the original protest song ‘Strange Fruit‘ was one of the crucial factors responsible for fueling the anger that would eventually find its expression in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. The poignant song single-handedly opened me up to the brutality of lynching, making me aware of the genesis and history of racist reactions.
‘Strange Fruit‘ was originally written as a poem by a New York based Jewish union activist Abel Meeropol in the mid 1930’s under the name Lewis Allan (the names of his two stillborn children), who was enraged after seeing a photograph of a brutal lynching of two African-American men in Marion, Indiana in August 1930. The horrifying photograph was a shot of the two men hanging from a tree – depicting the very essence of how gruesome a racist reaction could be.
Billie Holiday was no stranger to racism’s brutishness, having experienced it at a very young age after being pushed into prostitution in Harlem when she was barely 12 years old, witnessing the death of her father at a ‘blacks-only’ hospital ward in Dallas, and travelling with clarinetist Artie Shaw’s racially mixed band in 1938 – being made to stay in separate hotels and to eat alone in the band bus rather than at the diner with her band-mates.
After being introduced to the song ‘Strange Fruit‘ in the late 1930’s, Billie’s then record label Columbia refused to allow her to record the song. She eventually recorded the song on the 20th of April, 1939 for Commodore Records in spite of her own doubts about the song, and till today, the song remains her signature hit – a vastly significant song that defines her legacy. Holiday’s haunting rendition of the song accompanied by horns and the piano had an intense and eerie conviction to it, especially since the words reminded Holiday of the injustice meted out to her father as he died untreated and unattended at the hospital, thus amplifying the emotional intensity of the song.
Radio refused to play the song, but it was Holiday’s live performance of ‘Strange Fruit‘ that entered the realms of legend. It was her famed performance at New York’s Cafe Society Club in 1939 that catapulted her to dizzying heights of super-stardom both inside and outside the jazz circles, eventually earning her a feature on Time Magazine, a feat that was practically unheard of in that era. Holiday would always perform the song as her closing number, and all the lights at the club would be switched off except for a sole spotlight on her face. The waiters were forbidden to move and the bar would shut down during the rendition, and there would be no encore of the song at all. Holiday would often be in tears by the end of the song – earning a rapturous applause from the spellbound audience.
Irrespective of being unfairly suppressed on radio, the song went on to sell a million copies back in the day – Holiday’s most successful record ever.
The graphic lyrics of the song – juxtaposing the beauty of a southern landscape with the horror of burning flesh – says it all –
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.
With brazen displays of racial oppression plaguing the world 60 years after this song was written, it’s quite clear that our past mistakes have not enlightened us in any way – or rather we chose to ignore them completely irrespective of our knowledge. It’s time we unearthed songs like these and revisit what the originators and the innovators had to say – cuz they tried and succeeded in making a difference, something that a majority of our generation wouldn’t have the gall to do.
Check out a rare live footage of Lady Day herself belting out the blues like no other –