“Strange Fruit” – Billie Holiday (1939)
Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit” in 1959
Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus (2013) unexpectedly gave listeners a chance to actually learn or revisit a little something that happened in our nations’ music history with his track, “Blood on The Leaves.” West samples Nina Simone’s cover of “Strange Fruit,” a song originally made famous by the one and only, Billie Holiday in 1939.
Kanye West is just one of the many examples that illustrates just how influential and inspirational Billie Holiday continues to be for all genres of music today. Holiday was strongly influenced by jazz instrumentalists, citing Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith as records she listened to during her childhood. In the early 1930’s, Holiday was an unknown face singing in Harlem jazz clubs up until one starry night in 1933, when John Hammond discovered Holiday’s emotionally charged, subtle vocals and teamed her up with Benny Goodman to record what became her debut singles. Billie Holiday then went on to lead what was a successful, yet troubled and tragically short career, alongside many of the famous blues stars that were playing at jazz clubs in Harlem during that time period.
Billie Holiday has delivered to us some of the most soothing blues vocals to ever have existed. Her vibrato and pitch often reminisce the sighting of a butterfly flapping its wings, or the easy swaying back and forth in a rocking chair. However, “Strange Fruit” is the exception, and creates quite the opposite feeling of comfort that a rocking chair does. While it’s still our beloved Billie’s voice, the inflection in her singing, really strike a chord of uncertainty or perhaps anxiety to listeners, that is, if attention is paid to the lyrics. The song opens up with declarative and loud trumpet playing, as if a king or queen is entering the room, and her inflection implies inquisition, as if she wants you to really listen to the story she is telling.
“Strange Fruit” was originally published as a poem in 1937 by Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx, and a member of the Communist Party, in which he later put to music. Meeropol wrote the poem as a protest against racism, after he saw and in turn mortified by a photograph of African American men hanging from a tree, the obvious victims of lynching in the south. The poem offers us a metaphorical, vivid depiction of what was going on in the south, and it is highly realistic and melancholic in tone. Holiday was given the song by a New York club owner (Meeropol allegedly gave it to him int he first place), and first decided to sing it in 1939, at the Café Society in uptown Manhattan. Even though Holiday was born in Philadelphia and spent most of her life in New York City, she had experienced discrimination for her skin color throughout her life, and especially while touring the more segregated parts of the country and she, like Meeropol was outraged by how blacks were being barbarically lynched in the south. For Holiday to have the strength to sing this song as an African American woman in 1939 for a live audience, is worth more than just recognizing. For the song itself, the heaviness of the songs subject matter is evident in Holiday’s voice throughout the entire track, as even while the volume of her voice is low at points, it is still very intense and powerfully disturbing. At the very end, she offers up one last serving of pensive sadness, as her vocals end on a higher, eerie pitch. Since the lyrics to this song are so incredibly influential in Billie Holiday’s vocal technique and delivery in her performances, I’ve included the lyrics below.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar treesPastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ fleshHere 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