“Strange Fruit” Still Packs a Punch
Billie Holiday’s definitive version captures the pain when black lives don’t matter.
I dislike the word “important” when talking about songs. It seals them in a glass coffin and implies that any disagreement with their canonization is blasphemy. But “Strange Fruit” is a truly important song. Let it, and its fine performance, by the troubled and troubling artist Billie Holiday, into your heart and mind and you’ll be moved. It sums up a serious and painful chapter in our nation’s history with grace and simple language
Strange Fruit was written in 1939 after a swarm of lynchings of black men by racist gangs, the majority of them in the South. It was a poem before it was sung, written by the teacher and activist Abel Meeropol. After he set it to music it was recorded by Holiday in the version many consider to be definitive. It captures, in the most boiled down and direct manner, the ugliness of racial violence.
This weekend, in response to recent police shootings of young black men, around the country and here in Milwaukee, there will be a festival inspired by this song and borrowing the name Strange Fruit. Over the course of three evenings, a collection of poets, rappers, musicians will bring their talents to three different venues to express their outrage and pain over the current state of justice in our country. You can read more about it here.
One of the organizers, Jay Anderson, is a young black man with outlandish ability on the saxophone. That talent might not be the first thing an officer of the law would notice about him if he was pulled over for a faulty tail light. He, like anyone in his demographic group, is at risk, and any encounter with law enforcement is automatically fraught with mutual suspicion.
Chauntee Ross, a great young violinist, is organizing the event with him. She performs in the duo SistaStrings with her sister Monique LaDora Ross, a great cellist. They have played classical music since they were babies and now have branched out into other genres. They were taught black history at home and are using their music to further the cause of justice.
Have things changed since Billie Holiday sang this song? Depends on who you ask. The Supreme Court has declared racism all but over, striking down major portions of The Voting Rights Act. We have the most transparently racist presidential candidate since George Wallace in the race this year. If you live in the 53206 zip code, you would be hard pressed to say much has changed.
Some things that were old and tired ages ago are still that way. How scandalous is it for this song, almost 80 years old, to still be relevant? Read this lyric and substitute the grisly images in it for the iPhone videos we have been subjected to the last few years.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ 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 tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
This may be the most concise and brutal lyric I have ever read. This is irony done to a “t,” contrasting the “pastoral” and “gallant” South with images of pure horror, it takes aim directly at any callous heart. As visual as the newspaper photos from that time, it leaves you picturing the indifferent dimwits smiling and carrying on under the branches. The tightness and perfect craftsmanship in this lyric makes it a lethal weapon against hatred. You may think the AABB rhyme scheme done perfectly is just a formal achievement, but it’s more. With Billie providing the anguish and poise, this almost Shakespearean poem comes to life over and over again.
Most of us are familiar with Billie Holiday, the very model of the artist as damaged goods. Watch her face as she sings this song, it’s terribly expressive. It couldn’t have been easy to dredge up that kind of pain every time she sang it. It’s a sacrificial act, one that involves mountains of courage. It’s odd to contemplate something so generous in spirit, being delivered by a heroin addict. To share this much must have required a lot of medication.
If a song alone could change things, this one could have done it. It came pretty close. The real work has to continue and the good news is America seems poised for change. But it’s a big ship of state and it’s coming around slowly. Pressure needs to be kept up, songs need to be re-sung and for heaven’s sake, think hard about which politicians you vote for, and which leaders truly care about these issues.