Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

Happy Birthday, Billie Holiday – ‘Strange Fruit’ Video

Billie Holiday, April 7, 1915 - July 17, 1959

I listen to this song and worry that a whole lot hasn’t changed in America since Billie Holiday sang the utterly heartbreaking song, “Strange Fruit”. 

Two words: Trayvon Martin.

 

I came across a fascinating mini-bio of the song, “Strange Fruit”.  I’d like to share a bit of it with you.

via The Pop History Dig:

“Although the Commodore release of “Strange Fruit” did not get extensive radio play, the record sold well, which Gabler attributed in part to the record’s other song on the flip side, “Fine and Mellow,” which was a jukebox hit.  But “Strange Fruit” also rose on the charts, according to one source, peaking at No. 16 on July 22, 1939.  The song also helped put Billie Holiday in the national spotlight.  “‘Strange Fruit’ was to Billie what ‘Of Human Bondage’ was to Bette Davis or ‘The Petrified Forest’ to Humphrey Bogart,” wrote Michael Brooks in 1991 liner notes to a Billie Holiday collection.  “It brought her national recognition, fame and a very modest fortune.  It also attracted celebrity hunters of the worst sort, plus the type of men who were interested in nothing but a free ride…” 

But some critics, Brooks among them, also believed that “Strange Fruit” changed Holiday’s style, and led her to take on other concerns of the oppressed with her music.  “She began to live the part and see herself as the living symbol of injustice and oppression,” wrote Brooks.  This change in Holiday’ style, lamented by some, was a gradual process in which she began to interpret her songs rather than just naturally sing them.  Yet for many fans and critics, it was her musical interpretation and her singular vocal style in marking those interpretations, that made Holiday’s work so distinctive and impressionable.

“Strange Fruit” remained in Holiday’s repertoire for twenty years.  She persisted in using it, in part, she would later say, because it reminded her of what she believed happened to her father in 1937.  ( Clarence Holiday, a musician himself then on tour in Texas, developed a heavy cold in his travels that turned to pneumonia.  However, he died needlessly at the age of 39 after he was denied medical treatment at a Dallas hospital because he was black.)  

Not everyone got the message in “Strange Fruit,” however.  In fact, decades after she had first performed the song, Holiday would express frustration with those not understanding the song’s message.  In one 1958 interview,  explaining how some folks missed the point, Holiday said: “They’ll ask me to ‘sing that sexy song about the people swinging’.”

Strange Fruit

by: Lewis Allen

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.

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.

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.

Never forgotten, Lady Day.