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Book review: “Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song” by David Margolick

margolick --- strangefruitIn early 1939, at Café Society, a rare integrated New York City night club, Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit.”

It was, writes David Margolick, a shocking, stunning, visceral song for the singer and her audience — a unique, courageous and bitter song about the lynching of blacks in the American South.

And so it remained, arresting and horrific, for anyone who heard the battered and self-destructive Holiday sing it during the two decades she had left in her life, and for anyone who listens today to an audio or video recording of her singing the song.

It was written by Abel Meeropol, a school teacher and songwriter with strong leftish sympathies. (Indeed, in later life, after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for spying, he and his wife, who never met the Rosenbergs, adopted their two young sons.)

“Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol)

 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….

Strange Fruit is Margolick’s short book about the song. It began as a Vanity Fair article, and is subtitled The Biography of a Song. In many ways, it’s a kind of oral history since the bulk of his text is taken up with quotes from Holiday and others

At a party in Harlem in late 1938, Holiday asked in the early morning hours if she could sing a new song for those still around. Charles Gilmore, then a young salesman, recalled that it brought the party to a jarring halt:

That was all she sang; nobody asked her to sing anything else. There was a finality about the last note. Even the pianist knew. He just got up and walked away. It was an odd thing. Nobody clapped or anything.

In 1947, Vernon Jarrett, a Chicago newsman and father of Barack Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, heard Holiday sing “Strange Fruit”:

It was indescribable, man. She was standing up there singing this song as though this was for real, as if she had just witnessed a lynching. That’s what knocked me out. I thought she was about to cry. She was looking at no one in the audience. She could have been a little high, like she was singing to herself: “This is for me. Fuck all of you.” She impressed me as someone who had also been wronged, as if she’d been lynched herself in some fashion or another….

When I heard her sing I heard other kinds of lynchings, not just hanging from trees. I saw my own mother and father, two college-educated people, and all the crap they had to go through….To me, that was part of the whole lynch syndrome, the lynching of the body and spirit put together. That’s the way her face looked when she sang that.

…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….

Ned Rorem, later a noted composer, first heard the song in a recording around 1940:

My world changed forever. The graphic couplets about a lynching, grotesque and hopeless, rhythmless and dangerously slow, declaimed in a vulnerable velvet whine, were like nothing heard before.

Josh White, another prominent black singer, was the only other performer to regularly include “Strange Fruit” in his sets. His biographer Elijah Wald said:

When Josh sings it, you feel you’re hearing a great performance. When Billie sings it, you feel as if you’re at the foot of the tree.”

Holmes “Daddy-O” Daylie, later a longtime disc jockey in Chicago, was bartending at a hotel on the city’s South Side where many black musicians, including Holiday, stayed. Sometimes, she would go up to Daylie’s room to listen to his records, always playing “Strange Fruit” over and over:

She would sit there and listen to it and she would cry. That’s the one she wanted to hear….[W]hen “Strange Fruit” would come on, her face would change, she would become very pensive, and it would be like a funeral in the room.

…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.

Studs Terkel, the oral historian and long a major literary and musical influence in Chicago, was captivated by the final line and the final word:

The voice goes up — crah-ah-OP! — like a scream. It’s like that painting by Munch of the woman screaming, only in this case, you hear it. She leaves that last note hanging. And then — bang! — it ends. That’s it. The body drops.”

In 1958, a year before Billie Holiday’s death, Maya Angelou asked her to sing “Strange Fruit” for her young son Guy. The boy didn’t understand some of the song, asking questions during the private performance. Finally, as Angelou recounted:

Guy broke into her song: “What’s a pastoral scene, Miss Holiday?” Billie looked up slowly and studied Guy for a second. Her face became cruel, and when she spoke her voice was scornful. “It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means….That’s what they do. That’s a goddam pastoral scene.

In February, 1959, five months before her death, Holiday, ravaged by drugs and booze and beatings, sang the song in London during a televised concert. Margolick writes:

Haggard, largely wasted away, she had grown oddly, sadly suited to capture the full grotesqueness of the song. Now, she not only sang of bulging eyes and twisted mouths. She embodied them.

Patrick T. Reardon

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