Billie Holiday- Strange Fruit

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Born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, Billie Holiday is, in my opinion, the best female jazz singer of all time. Of course, I could count the number of female jazz singers I know on one hand, so I don’t have a lot to compare her to. Nonetheless, her tremendous, soulful voice and the feeling she expresses through her music are like nothing I have ever heard before.

Billie Holiday, nicknamed Lady Day, got her start singing along to records by famous singers, like Louis Armstrong, in late night jazz clubs. She moved to New York with her mother and started singing at nightclubs all over Harlem. Her stage name was inspired by Billie Dove, who was a silent film actress. Holiday was discovered by John Hammond and soon made her first record with a studio group that was led by Benny Goodman. In 1935 she recorded “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown to You,” which became hits. Because of the success of these songs, she secured a recording contract of her own. Holiday also worked with the legendary Count Basie and Artie Shaw, making her one of the first black females to work with a white orchestra.

Probably one of the most famous songs of Holiday, and my personal favorite, “Strange Fruit” was inspired by a poem that was original titled “Bitter Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish high school teacher. The poem exposes the racism in the country during that time, specifically lynching. Meeropol was inspired to write the poem after viewing a photograph of a lynching that haunted him for quite some time. He set the poem to music and played it for a club owner in New York, who then gave it to Holiday. During that time, she was working with Columbia records, and they didn’t want her to record the song due to its subject matter. They feared what the reaction would be by southern record retailers. Holiday herself was even fearful of retaliation, but because the song reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece regularly. Columbia allowed her to be released from her contract for one session so she could record the song with an alternative label, Commodore, instead. She first sang and recorded the song in 1939.

While the song itself never actually mentions lynching, there is a clear metaphor in the lyrics. It begins like this:

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.

It is clear what the author was trying to convey in these lyrics, and it is a powerful message regarding the injustices that were taking place during that time. The song continues:

Pastoral scene of that 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.

This song is one of the first to rail against racism and it reached millions of people. It became her biggest selling record and in 1999, Time magazine named it the song of the century. Also, the Library of Congress picked “Strange Fruit” to be added to the National Recording Registry.

Here is a live version of Holiday singing this song:

You can hear and see the raw emotion she has when singing. When I first heard her sing this, I could literally feel her pain. While I’ll never be able to fully comprehend what it must have felt like to be faced with such intolerance and violence during that time (and even still today), the way she tackled this song unveiled more of that appalling world to me and just led me to have even more admiration for those who rallied against it.

After “Strange Fruit,” she started to use drugs and abuse alcohol. Her health started to deteriorate and she developed cirrhosis. In May of 1959 she was admitted to the hospital with liver and heart disease. She soon succumbed to those diseases and died on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. In 2000, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

 

By Stephanie Curley

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