Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Strange Fruit

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) first sang "Strange Fruit" in Cafe Society in 1939. It was, according to Nina Simone, "the ugliest song I have ever heard", ugly "in the sense that is it violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country". "Strange Fruit" was something completely new, the first song with an explicit political message, a song that "cut conversation stone dead, left drinks untouched, cigarettes unlit". Reactions ranged from people clapping their hands until they were sore to walking out in disgust (via). The song was written by Abel Meeropol (1903-1986), a Jewish "white"teacher, writer, song-writer, poet and social activist. Meeropol was "very disturbed at the continuation of racism". He once saw the photograph of Thomas Shipp's and Abe Smith's lynching (Indiana, 1930) that haunted him for days and then wrote a poem about it. Later, he set words to his music and played it for a club owner who gave it to Billie Holiday (via).

In 1999, Time magazine called "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century". That was decades after Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools whether he had been paid by the American Communist Party to write the song in 1940. In 1945, he left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton and started using the pseudonym "Lewis Allen" when writing poetry and music (via).

"Strange Fruit"

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' 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 the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

::: Billie Holiday sings Strange Fruit: WATCH/LISTEN
::: Nina Simone sings Strange Fruit: LISTEN
::: Nina Simone talks about Strange Fruit: WATCH/LISTEN (song played with graphic content)
::: Diana Ross sings Strange Fruit: WATCH/LISTEN
::: Annie Lennox sings Strange Fruit: WATCH/LISTEN
::: Sting sings Strange Fruit: WATCH/LISTEN
::: UB40 sing Strange Fruit: WATCH/LISTEN

"Billie Holiday described the song to Maya Angelou's son Guy Johnson in 1957, as told in Angelou's The Heart of a Woman:

On the night before [Holiday] was leaving New York, she told Guy she was going to sing "Strange Fruit" as her last song. We sat at the dining room table while Guy stood in the doorway.
Billie talked and sang in a hoarse, dry tone the well-known protest song. Her rasping voice and phrasing literally enchanted me. I saw the black bodies hanging from Southern trees. I saw the lynch victims' blood glide from the leaves down the trunks and onto the roots.
Guy interrupted, "How can there be blood at the root?" I made a hard face and warned him, "Shut up, Guy, just listen." Billie had continued under the interruption, her voice vibrating over harsh edges.
She painted a picture of a lovely land, pastoral and bucolic, then added eyes bulged and mouths twisted, onto the Southern landscape.
Guy broke into her song. "What's a pastoral scene, Miss Holiday?" Billie looked up slowly and studied Guy for a second. Her face became cruel, and when she spoke her voice was scornful. "It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddamn throat. That's what it means."
The thrust of rage repelled Guy and stunned me.
Billie continued, "That's what they do. That's a goddamn pastoral scene."
Guy gave us both a frozen look and said, "Excuse me, I'm going to bed." He turned and walked away." (literally via)

"During the 50s, she performed it [Strange Fruit] less often and, when she did, it could be agonising to watch. Her relationship with it became almost masochistic. 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." (via)

Photographs via and via and via