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.
share on: facebook

In Memoriam: Billie Holiday


Try as I might I can't quite work up the same sympathy for artists with terrible childhoods that I can and do for others, mainly because I know that whatever Hell they've been through, their art not only helped them survive it at the time but that they can only stand to benefit from such travails after the fact as well...

One possible exception is Billie Holiday, born illegitimate* in Philadelphia on this day in 1915; in Holiday's case, the privation she encountered almost guaranteed she never had much of a chance at happiness or contentment. According to her own memoirs Lady Sings the Blues - admittedly not the most scrupulously accurate document, even amongst creative people's memoirs, but a gripping read nonetheless - she was raped at the age of ten which led to truancy and eventually Catholic reform school, in this case Baltimore's House of the Good Shepherd. Holiday would be raped other times as well, including once by a family friend named Wilbert Rich, who was caught in the act by Billie's mother and eventually served time in jail for the crime - a whole three months!

Of course, where such an early violation of sexuality occurs without any recourse to counselling self-medication tends to follow, and in those terms Billie Holiday was a one-woman Walgreen's. Still, she not only possessed a full complement of demons but seemed to possess all the other qualities of a star as well... She had remarkable presence, no doubt honed during all the years she worked for tips in smoky bars; hers was a thin voice in musical terms but it bulged with emotion in all the right places, as well as having the good fortune to be distinctive. She had terrible taste in men, which was pretty much expected of her, but was otherwise fairly easy to work with - especially in the early days - and obstinate mainly about turning in a good performance.

A May 1947 arrest and conviction for narcotics possession resulted in the loss of her New York City Cabaret Card, meaning she could no longer legally perform in Manhattan**. This draconian measure likely helped to shorten her life; inasmuch as performing was in her blood the conditions she would have encountered on tour in a heavily-segregated America would have been intolerable, both to her fragile state of mind and to the precarious nature of her health.

Having performed and even composed some of jazz's most enduring standards - her signature tune, God Bless the Child, was her own creation - Billie Holiday checked herself into New York's Metropolitan Hospital for what would be the last time on the final day of May 1959; having been raided for drug possession while there, and placed under armed police guard on her death bed, she died of liver failure and heart disease on July 17th at the age of only 44.

*It is the official position of the Pop Culture Institute that there are no illegitimate children, only illegitimate parents, but there you have it... Billie's father was jazz guitarist named Clarence Holiday, who was a father to her only in that he inseminated her mother. Even though she took his name when she was older, he made little effort to connect with her.
**Except for a single performance at the Ebony Room in 1948 under the aegis of
John Levy she remained strictly verboten among the city's club owners for the last dozen years of her life.

share on: facebook

Gratuitous Brunette: James Garner

Thanks to the miracle of DVD, the TV buff with a keen eye for the hot guy no longer has to comb that entertainment backwater known as the daytime listings to choose their favourite James Garner to crush on; nowadays the burly hunk of Maverick from the 50s, the washed up burly hunk of The Rockford Files from the 70s, or the gravelly-voiced grandad burly hunk of 8 Simple Rules from more recent times are all available digitally remastered and commercial free!

PhotobucketGarner's oeuvre isn't restricted to being a hunk on TV, though; such is his extraordinary range that he's also played a hunk in dozens of movies as well, including Sayonara, The Children's Hour, The Great Escape, Victor Victoria, and Murphy's Romance. Although most of his films have been Westerns - as befits a native of Oklahoma who suits a saddle to a tee - he's shown an equal aptitude for the kind of fluffy comedies starring lovely ladies like Doris Day, Julie Andrews, and Elke Sommer. Whether or not any saddles were used in the production of these so-called sex comedies will have to remain a secret between co-stars for the time being...

Of course, the secret to Garner's hunkitude isn't just his manly physique, his shiny black hair, or rugged punim... No, it's his politics, which have trended to the left of the Democratic Party (in other words, the centre) and have been doing so for five decades. He even got the chance to play a Democratic president in 1996's My Fellow Americans opposite Jack Lemmon, who has considerable fun playing his Republican foil.
share on: facebook

"The Robots" by Kraftwerk

Birthday wishes go out today to Florian Schneider, founding member of Kraftwerk and therefore an electronic music pioneer; Schnieider's specialty was the flute, which he would filter through a variety of machines to help achieve that distinctive Kraftwerk sound.

The song The Robots originally appeared on the band's seventh album, The Man-Machine; another song from that album, The Model, went all the way to #1 in the UK.
share on: facebook

Pop History Moment: Genocide Spreads In Rwanda

On this day in 1994 Agathe Uwilingiyimana, the Tutsi Prime Minister of Rwanda (and first female prime minister anywhere in Africa, shown below left), was assassinated in the opening days of the Rwandan Genocide...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketOne day earlier a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana (as well as Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu President of Burundi) was shot down as it was landing in Rwanda's capital Kigali, killing all 10 people on board.

Over the next 100 days between 500,000 and one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists...

The genocide was rendered in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda starring Don Cheadle as real-world figure Paul Rusesabagina and in the book Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Canadian Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, who was in charge of the UN peacekeeping operation during the genocide and its aftermath.

share on: facebook

Pop History Moment: The Killing of Thomas D'Arcy McGee


Despite a noble tradition of electing venal cretins to public office, Canada has had exactly two political assassinations* in its long and storied history, and only one at the federal level: Thomas D'Arcy McGee. In keeping with the more ignoble tradition of only assassinating the good guys, though, he definitely fits the bill...

One of this country's Fathers of Confederation - a journalist and sometime poet who foresaw great things from Canada, as well as a passionate advocate on behalf of Irish immigrants in North America - D'Arcy McGee was also adamantly opposed to sectarianism. Initially a supporter of the Fenians in Ireland, he later ran afoul of the Fenian Brotherhood in Boston, mainly because they advocated a forcible US takeover of Britain's colonies in Canada - a position he whole-heartedly did not support. Although elected MP for Montreal West in the 1st Canadian Parliament (as one of Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald's Conservatives) in doing so he'd alienated Irish support in the riding, and intended to stand aside for a plum civil service job in the coming year.

D'Arcy McGee was killed by a single shot to the head early in the morning on this day in 1868 on the front steps of his Ottawa rooming house - before the country he'd helped to establish was even a year old. A $2,000 reward was offered, and within 24 hours Patrick J. Whelan was arrested for the crime, largely because of his supposed Fenian sympathies (which were only implied, seeing as he was Irish**). Whelan was hanged in Carleton County Gaol in February 1869 before a crowd of 5,000 spectators, protesting his innocence to the last; his ghost is said to haunt the premises still, although nowadays it's a youth hostel, which might explain anything spectral that may or may not be going on.

The incident has been the subject of a play by Pierre Brault, entitled Blood on the Moon - which was apparently made into a TV movie - and Canadian folk group Tamarack wrote a song about Whelan called The Hangman's Eyes; seeing as this is a Canadian story, though, it remains woefully absent from the cultural record. In 2005, however, the gun that likely killed D'Arcy McGee was sold at auction to the Canadian Museum of Civilization for $105,000 (CDN), which brought the story back into the news briefly; just long enough, in fact, for it to come to light that the bullet which definitely killed him - formerly in the possession of Library and Archives Canada - has been missing since 2000.

*The other one was Pierre Laporte, a Quebec provincial Cabinet minister, in October 1970.
**Anti-Fenian sentiment had been even higher than usual ever since
Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh - second son of Queen Victoria -
was shot by Henry James O'Farrell on March 12th during a royal visit to Sydney.

share on: facebook

POPnews - April 7th

[On this day in 1805 the Lewis and Clark Expedition's intrepid Corps of Discovery broke camp at Fort Mandan - so named for its having been raised in the midst of the Mandan Nation of North Dakota in November 1804 - and resumed their journey West to the Pacific Ocean along the Missouri River. Upon their return voyage in August 1806 they found the fort burnt down; in subsequent years the advancing riverbank has swallowed up much of the historic ruin. This replica was built at the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, two and a half miles up-river.]

1348 - Prague's Charles University was founded by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who made the city his imperial capital.

1521 - Ferdinand Magellan arrived at Cebu during his ill-fated circumnavigation of the world; just three weeks later he would meet his fate in the Philippines, at the Battle of Mactan...

1541 - Francis Xavier left Lisbon on a mission to serve as Apostolic Nuncio in Goa.

1776 - Captain John Barry and the USS Lexington captured the British sloop Edward, a tender to the frigate Liverpool; although a good start at naval warfare for the would-be United States, the Lexington under Henry Johnson would herself be surrendered to Britain's John Bazely a-helm the 10-gun cutter Alert in September 1777.

1798 - The Mississippi Territory was organized from land ceded by Georgia and South Carolina; it would later be twice expanded to include disputed territory claimed by both the US and Spain.

1805 - The first public performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's Third Symphony - now known as Eroica but almost entitled Bonaparte - was conducted by the maestro himself at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna.

1868 - Thomas D'Arcy McGee, one of Canada's Fathers of Confederation, was assassinated - apparently by Patrick J. Whelan, a Fenian sympathizer who was anyway hanged for the crime; one of only two political assassinations in Canadian history (and the only one of a federal politician) it can be said to remain unsolved, as Whelan's supposed guilt looks more and more like a frame-up with each passing year.

1906 - The Algeciras Conference gave France and Spain control over Morocco.

Photobucket1940 - Booker T. Washington became the first African-American to be depicted on a United States postage stamp; his cautious approach to civil rights contrasted with the more radical methods favoured by W.E.B. DuBois in a similar - albeit more muted - contrast to that between Dr. King and Malcolm X two generations later.

1948 - The World Health Organization was established, by the United Nations.

1954 - US President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his Domino Theory speech during a news conference, outlining his own particular paranoia about the geopolitical threat posed by communism.

1956 - Spain relinquished its protectorate over Morocco - France having already done so in March - marking the independence of Morocco, during the reign of King Mohammed V.

1963 - The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia adopted a new constitution, making Josip Broz Tito its President for Life.

1964 - IBM announced System/360; I have no idea what it was or what it did, but I bet it made ugly computers run shitty software badly...

1969 - The publication of RFC 1 marked the symbolic birth date of the Internet.

1977 - West German Federal Prosecutor Siegfried Buback and his driver were shot and killed by two Red Army Faction members while waiting at a red light in Karlsruhe en route from Buback's home to the Bundesgerichtshof, the country's highest appeal court, where he worked. The shooter is thought to have been Stefan Wisniewski.

1983 - During STS-6, astronauts Story Musgrave and Don Peterson performed the first spacewalk from a Space Shuttle.

1989 - The Soviet submarine Komsomolets sank in the Barents Sea off the coast of Norway, killing 42 sailors.

2001 - The Mars Odyssey space probe was launched to scout for water and volcanic activity there.

share on: facebook