Editor’s note:Every month, members are kind enough to send in their recommendations for events, films, books, exhibitions and websites. Submissions are always very welcome. This month, Tom Lynham sent in an extended review which is worth giving in full…
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an early cry for civil rights
by David Margolick
In 1936, Abel Meeropol was teaching English at a high school in the Bronx. He was a political activist and closet communist, and responded to gruesome press reports of a double lynching in the Deep South by writing a poem which appeared in an educational newspaper. He subsequently set it to music and under the pseudonym Lewis Allan published Strange Fruit, a damning indictment of racial violence. This isangry writing, but instead of hitting us over the head with aggravated polemic, he gently seduces us with spare beautiful language while rubbing our noses in the shit. He uses metaphor to juxtapose the fecundity of pastoral harvests with the pointlessness of a meaningless death. The intoxicating fragrance of magnolias is contrasted with the stench of burning flesh. The wholesome symbols of good husbandry, Southern hospitality and the innocence of the elements are corrupted with the brutality of mob rule.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then 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 the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The song was performed in liberal New York circles and particularly Café Society – a political cabaret and jazz club in Greenwich Village. Café Society was the Manhattan multicultural venue from the late 30s to early 40s. Influenced by the radical review bars of Paris and Berlin, it held political and fundraising events, advertising itself asthe wrong place for the right people. Many mainstream clubs were happy to make money out of popular black performers but didn’t welcome black customers. Café Society actively encouraged fraternisation and became a magnet for artists such as Paul Robeson, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Zero Mostel, Lester Young and Billie Holiday who sang Strange Fruit in public there for the first time.
The journalist David Margolick has written a remarkable biography of Strange Fruit. It’s the story of a song and its journey from obscurity to a global anthem in the words of people who knew Billie or saw her perform it. Billie was child born into conflict and poverty; granddaughter of slaves, rejected by teenage parents, farmed out to indifferent relatives, raped at the age 11 she became a teenage prostitute and sang in bars to survive. Her adult life was pitted with abusive relationships, alcoholism, drug addiction and depression, but she had a way of interpreting songs that could move mountains. Billie had an intuitive, intravenous relationship with her audiences because she sang between the lines. She transformed trite lyrics into experiences that everyone could identify with. She bent, twisted and manipulated the syntax. She turned slick phrasing and contrived rhyming into something intensely human with all the hesitations and uncertainties of real life. Tin Pan Alley music publishers reserved the best material for the society orchestras and white crooners, but Billie breathed an edge into the bubble gum ballads and trashy romantic love songs she was given. Strange Fruit elevated her to a completely new level. It became her swan-song, her finalé. Serving staff were silenced to add dramatic effect. She didn’t do encores. She left the stage and that was it. People talk of her resilience, defiance, exuberance and shrewdness and the perfect horrorof the experience. Her delivery was languorous, unflinching, exhilarating yet excruciating. Audiences feltparalyzed, half strangled and gasping for air. One report describes the eerie sound oftwo thousand people sighing. We were stunned, immobilized by the intensity of emotion. Everyone in the hall just stood with their heads bowed. Billie became a phenomenon.
Although her record label Columbia refused to release Strange Fruit, it was eventually issued by Commodore in 1939 and attracted a huge following. But reception was not wholly favourable. It was contentious, challenging, controversial and uncompromising. Radio stations banned it (including the BBC) and so many clubs felt uneasy about it, Billie had to specify it in her contracts. Right wing hawks accused the song of being nigger-loving propaganda. Left wing critics thought it patronised and victimised blacks. During the McCarthy witch-hunts, anti-Communist politicians regarded the movement against apartheid as a Stalinist plot. Meeropol was hauled before a committee for Un-American Activities (sniffing out reds-under-the-bed in the public school system) alleging that royalties from Strange Fruit were used to fund communist activities promoting equality. Meeropol denied dissident sympathies, but did go on to adopt the children of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed for leaking atomic secrets to the Soviet Union.
As the drink and drugs took their toll, Billie became increasingly dislocated from real life. When she wasn’t high on heroin, she could be wilful and belligerent. She increasingly walked out of gigs and castigated audiences who failed to give undivided attention. Sycophants and hangers-on sold stories to the press and stole her money. Her most reliable friends were the pushers who supplied the fixes. Margolick quotes a telling encounter between the writer Maya Angelou and her 12 year-old son Guy who met Billie a year before she died.
“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 the 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 roots? I made a hard face and warned him, Shut up Guy, just listen. Billie had continued under 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 a 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 goddam throat. That’s what it means.
The thrust of the rage repelled Guy and stunned me.
Billie continued, That’s what they do. That’s a goddam pastoral scene.”