'Strange Fruit' - The Billie Holiday Song Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

'Strange Fruit' - The Billie Holiday Song

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A man hung from a tree.

What remained of the body was brought by the mob to Marianna where it is now hanging from a tree on the northeast corner of the courthouse square.

Photographers say they will soon have pictures of the body for 50 cents each. Fingers and toes from Neal's body are freely exhibited on the street-corners here.

– part of an account from Birmingham, Alabama of the lynching of a black man named Claude Neal in 1934

In the years following the American Civil War, blacks had been rounded up and killed like cattle, like animals. It was 1939 and only a few dozen blacks were lynched every year. The worst mobs were gone. It was a good time. That year, a somewhat obscure African-American singer named Billie Holiday, bouncing around the clubs in New York City (far from the Klansmen and viciousness of racism in the South, but fixed within the same cruel cycle of racism and discrimination), heard a poem which changed her life.

The Lynching

It was 1930 in Marion, Indiana. Two white adolescents - one boy, one girl - sat in a parked car next to the Mississinewa River. It was a warm August night. The young man was exploring the benefits of the local 'lover's lane' with his girlfriend.

Meanwhile, three young black men were driving alongside the same river in a 1926 Ford Roadster. It was a small car, maybe a tight fit for three teenage boys. The 18-year-old driver, Tom Shipp, and his pal Abram Smith had offered a ride home to a younger friend, 16-year-old James Cameron. They drove for some time before encountering the parked car of the two white lovers next to the Mississinewa. The Roadster rolled to a stop. Shipp startled Cameron by producing a gun and ordering the young man to rob the vulnerable white couple. Cameron hesitantly agreed, pulled his hat down and got out of the car. He slowly approached the other car, then swung its door open and shouted 'Stick 'em up!'

But he recognised the young white man. It was... Claude Deeter. Cameron shined his shoes sometimes. He was a nice man. A friend, even, maybe. Deeter often asked after Cameron's family. At gunpoint, Deeter and his girlfriend Mary Ball got out of the car, unaware of their assailant's identity.

No. Cameron turned around and gave the gun back to his companions. 'Here, I'm not going to have anything to do with you guys,' he said. He ran. He ran, and continued to run even after he heard the gunshots which rang from the riverside. He ran until he was home.

Late that night, after the body of Claude Deeter was found, all three boys were rounded up by police and taken to the county jail. They faced charges of murder and rape. The police beat them there. Held in separate cells, each spent a miserable night alone. They were awoken at dusk by the sound of a large crowd forming outside, sounding like a carnival. 'Turn them damn niggers over to us,' some shouted from beneath their white hoods, 'We know how to treat them!' They hurled rocks at the windows. When the mob reached its boiling point, the police encouraged the crowd to take the boys, and provided instructions for the mob's leaders. The mob surged into the jail, breaking down doors with sledgehammers. Kill all the niggers... Kill all the niggers. They removed Shipp first. They beat, clubbed, kicked and spat on him. When they were done, they fastened a sturdy rope around his neck and hanged him from a bar on one of the jailhouse windows. Smith was next - brutalised and then hanged from the branch of a maple tree.

Last of all they came for Cameron. The police cleared a path from the jail to the nearby courthouse square. They dragged him through the crowd, with everyone nearby hitting him with clubs, spitting on him, kicking him and yelling at him. Kill all the niggers... Kill all the niggers. They pushed his back up against the same maple tree Smith swung from, and fastened the noose around his neck. Through the tears and blood in his eyes, he recognised many of the faces of his accusers and begged them for help, pleaded for help, only to meet with unmerciful reproach, the blank stare of the executioner.

'Take this boy back!' A voice suddenly cried out above the clamour, 'He had nothing to do with any raping or killing!'

Somehow, miraculously, the angry mob was satisfied by this claim and relented. Cameron escaped with his life and staggered back to prison. When his case went to trial, Mary Ball stunned the town by denying that she had been raped. Apparently, the proximity of three young black men to a young white woman had caused police to simply assume that a rape had taken place.

The Poem

In the early 1900s, it was not uncommon for people to distribute souvenir photographs or postcards of lynching victims. Sometimes lynchings were delayed in order for a photographer to arrive. People frequently posed with the lifeless corpses, and sent these images to friends and family members. The lynchings of Abram Smith and Tom Shipp were photographed, and one copy of the photograph landed in the hands of a Jewish schoolteacher in New York City named Abel Meeropol. The image of Shipp and Smith, clothing ripped and stained with their own blood, swinging on bent necks from the maple tree, haunted Meeropol for days. The white faces in the crowd below, contented and unashamed, were perhaps more chilling still.

As a sort of outlet, Meeropol wrote a poem about lynching under the pseudonym1 'Lewis Allan' and had it published.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

The Song

In 1938, a man named Barney Josephson opened a nightclub called Cafe Society in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. Unusually for the time, it allowed white and black customers in and treated them equally. Josephson once said, 'This was to be one club where there was going to be no segregation, no racial prejudice.' The club itself was a parody of fading high society. Footmen dressed in rags greeted customers at the door. Playful, lively murals adorned the walls.

While Cafe Society club was getting up and running, Meeropol put his poem to music and circulated the song around the city. The song began to be performed in some left-leaning corners of the city. One black singer named Laura Duncan took the song on for herself. Hearing Duncan's version, a promoter brought the song to Josephson. He recognised quickly that this poem could be used as a great vehicle for one of his regular performers - a fairly unknown black singer with a powerful voice named Billie Holiday.

Holiday quickly grasped the power of the song, and worked to make it her own. 'I worked like the devil on it,' she later wrote, 'because I was never sure I could put it across or that I could get across to a plush nightclub audience the things that it meant to me.' She first performed it at Cafe Society in 1939. She later wrote that when she was done, 'I thought it was a mistake. There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.' One person observed of another audience's reaction, 'there was not a soul in that audience, black or white, who did not feel half strangled... A moment of oppressively heavy silence followed, and then a kind of rustling sound I had never heard before. It was the sound of almost two thousand people sighing.'

It was her first political song, a seeming oddity in her repertoire of simple love songs2 and bawdy, sexual tunes. Her record label, Columbia, had generally given her simple love-ditty rejects from the gutters of Tin Pan Alley to record. This lack of respect for her ability was due in no small part to her race. In fact, she had encountered much racism throughout her life, as she toured around the country, whether it be at lunch counters, hotels or public bathrooms. 'It got to the point,' she wrote in her autobiography3, 'where I hardly ever ate, slept or went to the bathroom without having a major NAACP-type production'. She would remember that her father had died because a segregated hospital had refused to treat him properly for an illness. Billie Holiday was an angry victim of the same cruel racism which had seen countless African Americans lynched over the past century.

Today, a film based on her life called Lady Sings the Blues includes a scene where Holiday (played by Diana Ross) sees a lynched black man swinging from the trees. But Holiday never saw such a scene herself. She was, nevertheless, still able to tap into the deep undercurrent of racism which pervaded the lives of all African-Americans to perform 'Strange Fruit' emotionally and powerfully. She called the song her 'personal protest' against racism. Already known as an emotional singer, she would simply perform the hell out of 'Strange Fruit' - and never quite the same way twice. It could be bitter and shocking. Her intensity could startle her audience and even unsettle herself. She was known to cry during some performances of the song. She could make people, black and white, uncomfortable.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

There were mixed reactions to the song as she performed it on the nightclub circuit. Customers frequently walked out during the performance. One woman, who had witnessed a lynching herself, confronted Holiday backstage after a performance and screamed at her to never sing 'Strange Fruit' again. Instead, she continued to elevate the song until it assumed a central place in her performances.

Columbia at first refused to record 'Strange Fruit', afraid that they would face boycotts. Despite advice from friends that it would be a horrible career move to release this song, Holiday prodded Columbia until they agreed to let a different record company release it. Its release was attended by some controversy, which helped it to reach Number 16 on the charts in 1939. Some radio stations refused to play it and many critics savaged it - Time Magazine called it a piece of 'propaganda'4. Surprisingly, the song provided Holiday with the first taste of the commercial success she had long craved. It is also credited as starting a movement in black protest music - stirring up the same sort of energy which could be found in the 1970s during the Civil Rights movement. She continued singing the song even after the shock of its imagery passed. She sang 'Strange Fruit' even through the McCarthy Era, when Civil Rights activists were assumed to be in league with Communists (Meeropol was once asked by a government committee if the Communist Party commissioned him to write the song). Aesthetically, Holiday's performance of the song remains powerful and haunting whatever its historical significance.

'Strange Fruit' could only have been successful when it fed off greater emotions. It especially affected those who had seen the horrific hangings and bloodthirsty mobs - the black man doused in gasoline, set on fire and hanged from a bridge for the same offense which a white man could commit innocently. 'Strange Fruit' succeeded because of the anger and guilt of so many Americans at the deplorable social injustice in their country; its relevance continues today because of the same feelings.

Perhaps the most lasting testament to the indelibility of 'Strange Fruit' comes from a story near the end of Abel Meeropol's life. He had written hundreds of compositions, poems and songs over the years, as one of the popular 'Tin Pan Alley' composers. He contracted Alzheimer's late in life and moved into a nursing home in New York City. He delighted in the fact that his works were occasionally placed into an anthology collection of black composers. His children5 believed that after the disease had taken its grip, the last thing he seemed to recognise was his proudest achievement...

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
1He was a member of the American Communist Party and therefore felt compelled to use an adopted name.2Her fans today note her remarkable ability to turn a simple, banal love song into a poignant piece imbued with passion and emotion.3Her autobiography was entitled 'Lady Sings the Blues', but she had originally named it, 'Bitter Crop', after the last two words in 'Strange Fruit'. It is now widely known to have been ghostwritten, however.4Ironically, Time Magazine named 'Strange Fruit' as their 'Best Song of the Century' 60 years later.5Meeropol is famous for having adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, after their execution in 1953.

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