“People don’t understand the kind of fight it takes to record what you want to record the way you want to record it.” (Billie Holiday)
“Not many singers could claim to have ‘suffered for their art’ as Billie Holiday,” writes journalist Don Atapattu. “Born Elinore Harris…Billie certainly knew torment. As well as growing up black in the Jim Crow South; she endured sexual abuse; extreme poverty; homelessness; and (worked) as a prostitute before she began recording music at the age of 18.”
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) did not write “Strange Fruit.”
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
A former slave in America’s post-Civil War South did not write it.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
“Strange Fruit” began as a poem…written in the 1930s by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx.
After viewing a photograph of a lynching, Abel Meeropol was moved to the pen the words Holiday would later make her own. Under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan,” Meeropol set the poem to music and saw it first performed at a teachers’ union meeting. It just as easily could have vanished into obscurity after that…but fate intervened.
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
When Barney Josephson—the manager of Cafe Society, a popular, desegregated Greenwich Village nightclub—heard “Strange Fruit,” he arranged a meeting between Billie Holiday and Meeropol. After some initial hesitation, Lady Day decided to record the song but her record label refused. Her persistence landed the song on a specialty label and Holiday began performing it regularly in live shows in 1939.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
Holiday’s passionate interpretation of “Strange Fruit” introduced white audiences to powerful images of racism, inequality, and hate crimes…images that were now more difficult to ignore.
“‘Strange Fruit’ probably did more to put Billie on the map than anything she ever did,” wrote Michael Brooks in the booklet that accompanied the three-CD box: Billie Holiday – The Legacy. “It was totally unlike any song written up to then, and it enraged those people it didn’t scare.”
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Postscript #1: According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African-American.
Postscript #2: Today, 44 percent of the U.S. death row population is African-American, an ethnic group that constitutes a mere 12.6 percent of the nation’s people as a whole.
Postscript #3: Abel Meeropol and his wife Anne later adopted Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the orphaned children of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
(Occupy this Book: Mickey Z. on Activism can be ordered here.)