SONG: Strange Fruit
ARTIST: Billie Holiday
Listen to it here:
Strange Fruit originated in 1937 as a poem by Abel Meeropol, who wrote the words after seeing a photograph of the lynchings of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in 1930. He originally called the work “Bitter Fruit” and tried to get musicians to set it to music, but eventually put it to music himself. Meeropol and his wife started to perform the songs around social circles until it gained traction around New York City.
There are conflicting stories on how the song was eventually brought to Billie Holiday, but despite being terrified of retaliation for singing it, she debuted the song at Cafe Society in 1939, and she and the song became intrinsically linked. It became a mainstay of her live performances and because the song was so powerful, the manager of Cafe Society set up some performance rules for the song – it would be her closing number and all service would be stopped just prior to it; the lights would be turned off except for a single spotlight on Holiday’s face, and there would be no encore. She released several different recordings of the song, one of which eventually became her highest selling record at over a million sold.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia on April 7, 1915 to unwed teenage parents. Her father left soon afterwards and her mother was often working. Holiday was often truant from school, was almost sexually assaulted by a neighbour and at 12 took a job scrubbing marble steps at a brothel. While working, she started hearing the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, which became a huge influence for her. She eventually followed her mother to Harlem, where she started performing in nightclubs under the pseudonym Billie (for actress Billie Dove) Holiday (for her father’s last name, Halliday). Her singing career started to gain momentum, and she eventually started making famous friends like Lester Young and was hired by Count Basie as a singer for his big band. She was eventually fired by the Count for being “unprofessional and temperamental” and a month later was picked up by Artie Shaw and his big band.
In 1939 Holiday debuted Strange Fruit at Cafe Society and recorded the song for both Commodore and Verve Records. The song catapulted Holiday’s career into the mainstream, and in subsequent years recorded other hit songs, such as God Bless the Child and Don’t Explain (which she wrote after discovering lipstick on her husband’s collar). 1947 was the peak of her career when she was arrested for narcotics possession. She was sentenced to do some jail time, and her conviction barred her from performing in venues where alcohol was served, so she began performing in concert halls. Her career never reached what it once was, and she engaged in harder drugs, alcohol and abusive men. Her records went out of print in 1950 and she made next to no money from royalties. After years of hard living she contracted cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease and after the insistence of friends, checked in to the hospital in May, where the police raided her hospital room, handcuffed and arrested her for drug possession. Holiday died in hospital, 2 months later at age 44 with $0.70 in her bank account.
Time Magazine named Strange Fruit “The Best Song of the Century” in its December 31, 1999 issue.
This song was released in 1939 and is STILL applicable 80 years later. Can you imagine the chills of seeing Billie perform this live at Cafe Society? The song is undeniably a great and powerful song, made even more striking by Billie’s voice and languid delivery. I feel like the rubato tempo that she takes makes her sound exhausted, fed up, like she’s stunned by the continued abuse and murder of her people. I don’t remember hearing this song as a child or teenager (which is weird, because Holly always listened to a lot of jazz) but I feel like this needs to be included in my record collection. This song is important.
I remember vividly the first time I heard this song, and it has kept all its power over the years since. This song started as a poem written by a high school teacher after seeing a picture of a lynching. The lyrics are powerful, and haunting, Billie Holiday’s singing is dark, and slow-moving, and full of power – it’s like watching a stream slowly trickle by. It seems so unlikely that this song would be performed in the 1930s in the US, and I think that gives it even more significance. Many people have tried to sing a comparably moving rendition of Strange Fruit over the years (Nina Simone, Common), but Billie Holiday’s interpretation is on its own level.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song (include youtube links when possible)
Nina Simone, another famous version
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