Wednesday, April 07, 2010

"Strange Fruit" by Billie Holiday

The 1930s in America saw a veritable epidemic of lynching, the likes of which hadn't been seen in that country since the hey-day of that fine Christian organization, the Ku Klux Klan, at the end of the Civil War in 1865. In times of financial hardship, when the populace is hardest hit but unable or unwilling to go after those truly responsible for it - namely those more powerful - the knee-jerk human reaction seems to be to go after those even less powerful than themselves. During the Great Depression that meant blacks...

The song Strange Fruit is a product of that terrible time.

Originally a poem - written by Abel Meeropol* in reaction to a news photograph by Lawrence Beitler of the August 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana - it first appeared in a union magazine called The New York Teacher in 1936. Meeropol set it to music himself, and it was as a protest song that Strange Fruit first began to be performed at the various anti-lynching protests which took place in New York City during the latter half of the 30s.

It was the impresario Barney Josephson - owner of Cafe Society, Greenwich Village's most prominently integrated nightclub - who introduced the song to Billie Holiday, and Holiday who easily made it her own. Getting the song onto vinyl, however, proved more challenging...

Holiday's label Columbia balked at releasing such an overtly political song, and didn't care to take a stance even against a crime as heinous as lynching to do it; instead they chose to waive Holiday's exclusive contract in a single exception, and she recorded the track for Milt Gabler**, the owner of an experimental jazz label called Commodore Records. In fact, she recorded it for them twice - the first time in 1939, and again in 1944. So strongly was the song identified with Holiday that she always ended her set with it thereafter.

Following Holiday's death in July 1959 the song was adopted by Nina Simone, and it has been recorded numerous times since; here, though, it is performed in a rare television appearance by Billie Holiday herself. In December 1999 no less a publication than Time magazine named Strange Fruit its 'song of the century'.

*Meeropol's other claim to fame is that he later adopted Robert and Michael, the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been orphaned by their parents' executions.
**Among Gabler's more illustrious descendants is his nephew, the comedian Billy Crystal.
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