Songs of Black Lives Matter: Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"

Billie Holiday
Photo Credit
William Gottlieb/Redferns

In the wake of nationwide heartache following the news of George Floyd's death, there is a growing urgency to support the Black Lives Matter cause. Generations of soul artists have contributed to the movement through anthemic songs of protest and statement albums that have begun and furthered the conversations addressing racism, violence and disillusionment.

In this ongoing series, we highlight the songs of the Black Lives Matter movement that launched and empowered people's pleas for a brighter future. Check back in weekly to listen and learn about the songs that have unified people throughout history to stand up for racial equality.

Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"

It was March 1939 when a 23-year-old Billie Holiday stood in front of the mic at Greenwich Village's Cafe Society in New York City to sing her last song of the night. Just as she had requested, the waiters stopped serving and all house lights dimmed, except for the spotlight that lit Holiday's face in a pitch black room. 

Then with a raw, poignant voice, Holiday began to sing, "Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees..."

She finished her performance to absolute silence. "There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished," she recounted in her autobiography. "Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping."

While the applause became less tentative and louder as Holiday began to perform the signature tune nightly, at least in spaces where it could be safely performed, the jazz singer braved forces of great resistance, ranging from her own record label Columbia (who refused to record the tune) to bitter nightclub patrons, as she continued to perform the protest anthem until her tragic passing at 44.

ON THE SONG'S INSPIRATION:

Before Holiday popularized the haunting tune, "Strange Fruit" began as a poem titled "Bitter Fruit", written by the Bronx-based political activist and English teacher Abel Meeropol, using the nom de plume "Lewis Allan." 

Somewhere around 1935, while Meeropol was in his early 30s, he came across Lawrence Beitler's distressing 1930 photo that captured the grotesque murder of two black men in Indiana via lynchings. In response, Meeropol put his pen to paper and published a poem about the horrific matter in a teachers union publication.

 “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it,” Meeropol shared with BBC in 1971. 

Meeropol then set the poem to music, and in the late 1930s the song was regularly performed in left-wing circles. It would reach the ears of Robert Gordon, the new floor manager at the newly minted Café Society, who would pass on the tune to Holiday.

KEY LYRIC: "So, people get ready, there's a train a-comin'/ You don't need no baggage, you just get on board/ All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'/ Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord"

Meeropol was invited to play the tune for Holiday, and as she listened to its startling lyrics, she was deeply touched - not only as a black American, but also as a daughter whose father has passed away at 39 from a fatal lung disorder, after being refused medical treatment because he was black. 

Given the song's painful and personal reminder for Holiday, she didn't always enjoy performing "Strange Fruit," but acted on the firm nature of her social conscience. “It reminds me of how Pop died,” she reflected in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”

Her bold decision to popularize such an electrifying song that adamantly championed anti-lynching and racial justice would help to spur change in the United States. Time reviewed the song as "a prime piece of musical propaganda for the NAACP," while Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegun described the song as "a declaration of war...the beginning of the civil rights movement."

"Strange Fruit" made it No. 16 on the charts in July 1939, and was widely publicized. But such public attention would make Meeropol and Holiday prime targets in the eyes of their enemies. Meeropol was called to testify whether he had been paid by the US Communist Party to write "Strange Fruit," while Harry Anslinger, the infamous head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, fixated his attention to Holiday as his Public Enemy #1.

Perhaps the tragic story of Holiday as a relentless jazz heroine only deepen the haunting nature of the song and its message. But the legacy of "Strange Fruit" -  galvanized by Meeropol and Holiday, remains as relevant as ever as the enduring tune lives on through the countless musicians who have followed suit by singing as loud as ever about social injustice and social change. 

As Meereopol would later say of Holiday's rendition, "she gave a startling, most dramatic, and effective interpretation ... which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere.... Billie Holiday's styling of the song was incomparable and fulfilled the bitterness and shocking quality I had hoped the song would have."

There are many ways people can support the movement against police violence and provide relief to the communities who have been impacted by police racism. Help the family of George Floyd HERE. Fight for Breonna Taylor HERE. Help the family of Ahmaud Arbery HERE.

Want to help protesters? Donate to one or more community bail funds HERE. Visit Movement For Black Lives for additional ways you can help the cause. Want to connect with leaders building grass roots campaigns? Click HERE. Are you an ally and want to learn more? Here are some anti-racism resources.

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