A song made by a Jewish man and a black woman about Southern violence still resonates.
The events in Charlottesville last weekend has stuck in my mind in a way that few other incidents during this tumultuous administration have. I come from a southern family, though I was not born nor raised in “The South”. My father’s side of the family left The South for opportunities in Florida and maintained a disgust for the racial politics they witnessed there. We knew that we had Confederate ancestors, but it was a novelty not a celebration. The “heritage” our former neighbors claimed meant very little to us. I can’t speak for everyone who shares my surname from The South, but I’ve got no ties to those statues racists pretend is meant to honor me. Take them down, if for no other reason that it would be kind to our black neighbors and that’s the real Southern heritage right there. Replace it with a monument to sweet tea.
Given that bit of biography, I felt it important to delve into the history of a classic American song this week that exposed the horrors associated with the Confederacy. “Strange Fruit” was originally written by Abel Meeropol, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants to New York, in 1936 under the name Lewis Allan. Jews had also been the victims of lynchings by racist mobs in America and Meeropol had been particularly horrified by a photo of a lynching he had seen when he wrote the poem. It was not uncommon to find such photos as souvenirs of “justice delivered”. A website for the book “Without Sanctuary” has more educational details on the prevalence of such photos.
Meeropol had started to put his words to music when he brought it to a 23 year old Billie Holiday, a rising star. Documentarian Dorian Lynskey describes how Holiday and her band set up the performance of the song at a Harlem club:
Josephson, a natural showman, knew there was no point slipping Strange Fruit into the body of the set and pretending it was just another song. He drew up some rules: first, Holiday would close all three of her nightly sets with it; second, the waiters would halt all service beforehand; third, the whole room would be in darkness but for a sharp, bright spotlight on Holiday’s face; fourth, there would be no encore. “People had to remember Strange Fruit, get their insides burned by it,” he explained.
It was not, by any stretch, a song for every occasion. It infected the air in the room, cut conversation stone dead, left drinks untouched, cigarettes unlit. Customers either clapped till their hands were sore, or walked out in disgust.
Columbia Records refused to let Holiday record it for the masses so it went to Commodore. The song had a massive impact and it was Holiday’s particular performance of it that moved people so much. In 1999, Time magazine listed it among the greatest 100 songs of the century.
Since then, a number of black and white artists have sung the song, each making a unique statement about the racism in their present context. For this round up, I’m only going to feature those notable performances done by black women.
Nina Simone (1965)
This might perhaps be the most iconic cover of the song, given the enormity of Nina Simone’s presence and legacy in the Civil Rights movement. It was even sampled by Kanye West for his song 2013 “Blood On The Leaves”.
Diana Ross (1972)
Diana Ross played Billie Holiday in the film based on her biography, Lady Sings The Blues. In the movie, Billie comes across a mourning procession of what is implied is a lynching victim and the song begins. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Original Song and Score.
Jill Scott (2015)
This version was sung as part of the “Shining A Light Concert: A Concert for Progress On Race Relations in America” following the murder of nine people at a historically black church in South Carolina by a white supremacist.
Other versions include Jeff Buckley in 1993, India.Arie in 2003, John Legend in 2010, Annie Lennox in 2014. NPR also has a recording where the song is mixed with the Confederate anthem Dixie by Rene Marie. YouTube has a number of videos where the song is set to a montage of historical lynching images, which you may peruse at your own risk.
Which version touches you the most?