First Recorded Song about Racism is Absolutely Bone Chilling*
By Dylan Charles
With such a great deal of concern over racism, hate and division these days, it seems that the human race is so terribly fractured that it will take a miracle of sorts to unite us before we kill each other off entirely. We are in need of healing, and music is the one force of nature that has the power to inspire the awakening of humanity within even the most callous of souls.
Even the saddest of songs can make a painful truth universally bearable, and in America’s dark history of slavery, segregation and injustice, one remarkable composition has achieved just that. Strange Fruit, as performed by renowned jazz musician Billie Holliday was America’s first recorded song about racism, and is a haunting reminder of why we still struggle to understand our relationship with one another in this melting pot.
“Billie Holiday’s ‘strange fruit’ is part of the jazz singers lexicon for good reason. I’ve sung it in nightclubs and, ironically at fancy brunches in 5-star hotels where African Americans used to have to enter through the back door. People respond to its weight, its sadness. It touches them even when they don’t know what the song is about. The lyrics – ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’ and ‘bloody roots and bloody leaves’ are hard to ignore.
If Rosa Parks helped to unsettle the apple cart that day on the bus, Billie Holiday’s rendition of this song reminds us Southerners just how crooked our past was every time we hear it. In my opinion nothing keeps us accountable like music. It’s emotions don’t lie.” ~Christina Sarich
Billie Holiday was considered by many to be the finest female jazz vocalist ever to live, although she died of the spiritual disease alcoholism in 1959. She carried herself with a moving, lonely, solemnity, clearing bearing the weight of tremendous suffering.
Revered as one of songs that actually did change history, Strange Fruit was one of Ms. Holiday’s most famous recordings, directly addressing the horrors of racism, and still stands as one of the most harrowing and painful musical journeys ever published.
Recorded in 1939 for Commodore Records and eventually selling over a million copies, it was actually written by a Jewish white man from the Bronx named Abel Meeropol who wrote a poem after being inspired by one of the most iconic and gruesome photographs ever taken of the human rights struggle for blacks in America, the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
“Eighty years ago, two young African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in the town center of Marion, Ind. The night before, on Aug. 6, 1930, they had been arrested and charged with the armed robbery and murder of a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his companion, Mary Ball.
That evening, local police were unable to stop a mob of thousands from breaking into the jail with sledgehammers and crowbars to pull the young men out of their cells and lynch them.
News of the lynching spread across the world. Local photographer Lawrence Beitler took what would become the most iconic photograph of lynching in America. The photograph shows two bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a crowd of ordinary citizens, including women and children. Thousands of copies were made and sold. The photograph helped inspire the poem and song “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol — and performed around the world by Billie Holiday.” [Source]
The first time Ms. Holliday sang the song it was clear that it would become an American icon.
“The night that she first sang ‘Strange Fruit’ [at Cafe Society in New York] ‘there wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished,’ she later wrote in her autobiography. ‘Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then, suddenly, everybody was clapping.’ The applause grew louder and a bit less tentative as ‘Strange Fruit’ became a nightly ritual for Holiday, then one of her most successful records, then one of her signature songs, at least in those places where it was safe to perform.” ~David Margolick, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song
It’s the kind of song that inspires people to write whole books, as David Margolick did in Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, where he tells the story of how this one song so deeply affected an entire nation, even stirring some to commit violence.
Regarding the cultural atmosphere of the times Margolick notes:
“Lynchings — during which blacks were murdered with unspeakable brutality, often in a carnival-like atmosphere, and then, with the acquiescence if not the complicity of local authorities, hung from trees for all to see — were rampant in the South following the Civil War and for many years thereafter. According to figures kept by the Tuskegee Institute — conservative figures — between 1889 and 1940, 3,833 people were lynched; ninety percent of them were murdered in the South, and four-fifths of them were black.
Lynchings tended to occur in poor, small towns — often taking the place the famed newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken once said, ‘of the merry-go-round, the theater, the symphony orchestra.’ … And they were meted out for a host of alleged offenses — not just for murder, theft and rape, but for insulting a white person, boasting, swearing or buying a car. In some instances, it was no infraction at all; it was just time to remind ‘uppity’ blacks to stay in their place. …” ~David Margolick, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song
The national atmosphere was so charged with violence at the time, but Strange Fruit today offers a historical compass for our current times as it serves as an agonizing reminder that things could definitely be worse than they are today.
Lyrics to Strange Fruit
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.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning 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 a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
My hunch is that more compassion is needed from all sides as the human race moves into an evermore integrated and compassionate future, and music is the one force of nature that has the inexplicable power to inspire the awakening of humanity within even the most callous of souls. The voice of Billie Holliday is truly one of the greatest treasures ever gifted to human ears, as haunting as it is.