Ever wonder how jazz songstress Billie Holiday came to sing the classic tune, Strange Fruit ? Vanity Fair contributing editor David Margolick provides a well-researched, in-depth answer in this portrayal of the tune's origins, the controversy surrounding it, and the violence it occasionally stirred when it was performed.
Margolick's book is filled with anecdotes and testimonials from those who witnessed Lady Day's numerous interpretations of the protest anthem, which was recently named one of ten songs that changed the world. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called Strange Fruit, with its haunting lyrics about a lynching, a significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism. Strange Fruit chronicles the 1939 premiere of the song by Holiday, then known for her solemn ballads and heart-wrenching blues, before a stunned crowd at Cafe Society, New York City's only integrated club. Despite her initial reluctance to sing the number, she nevertheless performed it, sparking a much needed debate about the ongoing rash of racial lynchings and the repressive policies of Jim Crow. Margolick reveals the significance of Holiday's courageous act, which came 16 years before Rosa Parks's historic refusal to give up her seat on an Alabama bus.
Contrary to popular belief, the song was written not by Holiday, but by a white schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol. Although Holiday's producer, John Hammond, didn't want her to sing it because of the strong political message, Holiday mesmerized audiences with her rendition, often bringing them to tears. The song also made enemies for Holiday, and the singer believed it led federal prosecutors to target her for harassment. Very few other performers sang it until the late 1950s and 1960s, when Josh White and Nina Simone began including it in their acts.
For jazz buffs and anyone interested in popular culture, this slender book by Margolick offers several surprises and revelations within its pages, as it chronicles those past and present who have sung Strange Fruit, including Sting, UB40, Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Tori Amos. This is indeed a job well done.
Robert Fleming is a journalist in New York City.