It’s an uncomfortable song about an unimaginable act, sung by a woman with a voice that can make you cry. Recorded in 1939 as a protest to injustice, hatred and prejudice, it is the second most famous song in Billie Holiday’s repertoire and today it is the least heard. Called the beginning of the civil rights movement, "Strange Fruit" was written by Abel Meeropol, a young Jewish schoolteacher who frequented a club where Billie sang.
Billie Holiday did not live in the deep south, but she was accustomed to the horror of the day. In the 1930s lynching was in the news as an everyday part of life. The act of lynching was so prevalent that Fritz Lang, the director of the classic movie Metropolis, directed a movie called Fury in 1936 on the subject. In it, a young Spencer Tracy was the catalyst for several revengeful mob actions. They didn’t use any black people in the movie, because it was something that could happen to anyone. However, it is speculated that of the 4720 recorded lynchings between 1882 and 1951, there were three times as many unreported ones, of mostly black people. Historians cite World War II and the migrations of populations to urban areas as the cause for the decline of such acts, but until the mid 1950s they still happened.
In my opinion, this song was a contributing factor to the harsh treatment of Billie by the legal system and the music industry in the 1940’s. Her death, in sickness and poverty in 1959, can be traced back to her inability to obtain a cabaret license from New York City authorities because of drug arrests. As she grew older, all she wanted was to live in the city and sing, not travel the country and be subjected to poor treatment.
Today, the song is still powerful, hauntingly beautiful and one of the saddest things you can ever hear.
~Lydia Barnes (email@example.com)
Our Smooth Video of the Day: The great Lady Day and "Strange Fruit."