Monday, June 15, 2015

Book Notes: Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and An Early Cry for Civil Rights

"Strange Fruit" is perhaps a song like no other. It divides opinion, it causes controversy and is often held to be too difficult to sing (or at least to do justice to), and almost unbearable to hear. "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and An Early Cry for Civil Rights" is David Margolick's appreciation of Strange Fruit, and a history of it's inception, development, performances, and legacy as well as Billie Holiday whose name will for ever be associated with it.

The song was written in the 30s by a white Northerner Abel Meeropol, a politically left-leaning teacher with an interest in social justice. That a racial hierarchy had been imposed on the Black South after the end of Reconstruction by terror, was widely assumed. Yet, in the inter-war years of the Twentieth Century the particular instrument of oppression, The Lynching appears to have been a taboo subject. Three things then combine to make Strange Fruit one of the most poignant and disturbing songs ever heard. The taboo shattering protest against racial violence years before the civil rights movement was born, the devastating assault of the poetry of the lyrics, and the soul-aching delivery of it in the hands of Billie Holiday.

Southern trees bear a 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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

David Margolick's book is short, but looks at the way in Holiday was able to pour so much of her own personal pain into a song which was hers by ethnicity - but not by direct experience. He explores the way in which it became her show-stopping number, but which she would refuse to perform to audiences she felt were not good enough. He looks at the social and political impact of the song, of places it was allowed to be heard and where it was banned - as well as different covers of the song that have been made of time. Its a poignant little book, which opens the whole subject up poignantly, respectfully and directly. The photo of an actual lynching included in the centre pages is deeply upsetting.

The BBC have also made a radio documentary about Strange Fruit, which is currently available online here:

No comments: