In 1939, for the first time, Billie Holiday performed “Strange Fruit” on the stage of Café Society in New York, a song that forever marks the American musical history of the 20th century. “Strange Fruit” is the very first famous protest song in the United States.
The story of the song
Right in the middle of the racial segregation in the United States, in 1937, the communist poet and professor, Abel Meeropol, decided to write against the violence committed against the black American population, and mainly on the subjects of lynching. It is right after that the lynching photos of Thomas Shipp (18 years old) and Abram Smith (19 years old), accused of rape, that he, traumatised, take up his pen to finally denounce these cruel practices. According to the association Equal Justice Initiative1, more than 4000 Blacks were lynched in the United States between 1877 and 1950. 90% of these assassinations were committed in the Southern States.
Published under Lewis Allan’s pseudonym in the New York Times Post, the poem, named initially “Bitter Fruit”, acquires step after step a kind of notoriety in the left-wing intellectual circles in New York. It’s Anne Meerpool first, who sang for the first time before he contacted Billie Holiday, already endowed with a strong fame, to become the interpreter.
The choice of Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday, born in 1915 in Philadelphia, is considered as one of the most famous singers of jazz and blues in history. Usually interested in love songs, her work “Strange Fruit” reflects however her personal feelings and experience on racism.
Since childhood, she has been suffering violence. As a daughter of a guitarist father who does not recognise her and of a mother who works as both a cook and a prostitute, she was placed at a home for black children, where she was raped. Her mother then brought her back to her side in New York in 1928; Billie was 13 years old back then. She worked with her mother as a cleaner in Harlem and as a prostitute. From time to time, she sang, sharing her particular and special voice with the world. After having been in prison for several months because of soliciting, Billie started to sing in jazz clubs and immediately received great success.
Her success, however, was punctuated by the use of drugs, but also by the racism that she’s been a victim of, especially during her tours in the Southern States where she could not reserve hotel rooms or dinner with her orchestra team composed of white musicians. When Abel Meeropol proposed to interpret her poem, she was at first hesitant, as she was aware of the risk of taking position on such a delicate subject. It was in the memory of her father, who passed away suffering pneumonia after being rejected by several hospitals of the South, that she accepted the proposal.
The song: analysis and staging
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
Looking at the lyrics, we can immediately understand that the fruit mentioned is the body of a Black person, hanged on a tree after being lynched. All the way down the lyrics, there is a comparison between the body and the fruit. What is troubling in this development, is the antithesis between the calming, soothing and pastoral description of a landscape of the south of the United States, and the violence depicted in the scene. A person violently assassinated and abandoned just there, outside, being watched by the public and waiting for decomposition.
The description is precise, and the words are raw and disturbing, like “rot”, “burnin’ flesh”, etc. The poet engages our senses so that we could imagine the landscape that is depicted, as if we were there at the same time as he was. For example, the way he describes the view, the smell with the “scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh” and the “sudden smell of burnin’ flesh”, and also the touch when he portrays the rain and the wind – we could feel with our skin.
When she starts to sing this song, Billie Holiday has the stage for herself – as the lights put out, as the spotlights gather on her, and form a bright light beam in the middle of obscurity. She is alone, accompanied by a pianist. The whole room shuts up and the waiters stop to serve. It is a complete silence. She charms since the beginning of the staging – the moment when she closes her eyes before articulating each word of the lyrics to perfect each weight on them. The end of the song is sung in high point, in grand finale, like a cry of rage against the injustice endured by the black American people. D. Margolick, a journalist, writes: “It was always the end of her show. Nothing could beat this. This was staged in a way that is so theatrical, and I think it is this that makes her attractive, powerful and unique.”2
The testimonies recounted that after the very first representation of “Strange Fruit”, the room remained petrified, it was before a person dared to break the silence by giving applause. The Café Society has since immediately made the song their feature – we see afterwards hundreds of people come to admire the gorgeous Billie Holiday singing her famous song, and all of them always leave the spectacle in awe.
The government, nevertheless, does not share this opinion and seeks to shut her up in all ways in order to prevent a revolt of the black Americans. Billie Holiday is sent to prison in 1947 for the possession and consumption of drugs. Upon her release, many stages refuse to take the risk to let her perform the famous “Strange Fruit” and there are often police agents in her shows to intervene in case of trouble. In Alabama, she is chased out of the city of Mobile for the only matter of having started to sing the song.
The singer has equally lived through hard times to record “Strange Fruit”. She was rejected by Columbia Records, with whom she was under contract, for fear of repercussions and loss of money from the partners from their white partners and customers. It was at last the little Jewish record company in New York, Commodore Records, who agreed to record and launch her song to the market.
After living a hard life marked by the toxic men whom she shared her everyday life with (the drugged Jimmy Monroe, the gangster John Levy who stole her money, the violent Louis McKay…), but also drugged and alcoholised herself, Billie Holiday dies on 17 July 1959 of cirrhosis at the age of 44.
In 1999, “Strange Fruit” became “the best song of the century”, according to Time Magazine. And in 2021, it was ranked by the rock magazine Rolling Stones as the 21st among the 500 biggest songs of all time.
This piece has become over time a genuine hymn of rallying for all the victims of racism. Sometimes it is referred to as the “black Marseillaise”. The impact of “Strange Fruit” in the black American culture is dearly important because it is often linked with Rosa Parks’ refusal to let her place in the bus. During the apartheid in South Africa, the song was restricted in all the radio channels, for fear of uprisings.
The song is then covered many times by a wide range of artists including Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Diana Ross and even Jeff Buckley. However, it is really a big challenge for a lot, because the performance of Billie Holiday has marked the memories as a real feat charged with emotion. Despite all the excitement, this song remains little appreciated by the public, seeing it as disturbing and containing a certain form of uneasiness.
At Donald Trump’s investiture in 2017, the singer Rebecca Ferguson accepted to sing the song with a condition that the then newly elected president let her interpret “Strange Fruit” as she wanted, but it was refused.
To go further
Two years before her death, Billie Holiday worked on her autobiography Lady Sing The Blues, which was then adapted to the eponymous film, where Diana Ross plays the role of the blues singer.
In 2009, the book of David Margolick, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, has brought the story behind this internationally big song, as its title suggested.
In 2020, the documentary Billie was made by James Erskine who drew on hundreds of interviews of Billie and her loved ones, which were conducted by journalist Linda Kuehl in an attempt to make her biography , but she unfortunately passed away before being able to write the piece. The documentary is narrated by voices recorded by Linda Kuehl herself, including hers.
Finally, the most recent biopic of the singer, even though in some parts can be a little too romanticised, was released in 2021, directed by Lee Daniels: The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, starring Andra Day as Billie. The actress has received the Golden Globe of the “best actress in a drama trophy” for her appearance, and the film is nominated in the Oscars.
Translated by Jessie Lee