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Flashback Friday: The Enduring Legacy Of “Strange Fruit”

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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?

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  • Ed Welthorpe

    Great post, though I must administer a finger wag for neglecting to mention the gorgeous version sung by British prog-rock/art-rock icon Robert Wyatt. The song was a perfect choice for him, as Mr. Wyatt possesses a voice capable of riveting mournfulness. (He often wrote songs with humorous or surrealistic lyrics, then performed them as if they were the saddest music ever recorded… thereby achieving a delightfully unsettling effect on the casual listener.)

    • Robbert

      I came in here to mention that version, but you’ve already beaten me to it! ‘A voice capable of riveting mournfulness’ is a great way of putting it.
      https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mBrTQmF96lE

      • When did he record it out of curiousity?

        • Robbert

          I don’t remember the exact year, but it was somewhere between 1980 and 1982.

  • i’m partial to the Cassandra Wilson version:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YKJ3MU6tx6Y

    hard to beat Nina Simone’s intensity, tho.

    • Alworth

      Second this. I was a huge fan of Holiday’s version, but I thought Wilson did something rare; she managed to incorporate the history that elapsed since Billie’s transgressive performances. Many versions are imitations of Billie’s or are maudlin and tone-deaf. Wilson’s version expresses a kind of sadness and weariness: “here we are, decades later, and this song is still relevant.”

    • everstar

      Cassandra Wilson’s version was the first I ever heard, and it’s stuck with me. I feel like Billie Holiday’s version is a stark spotlight forcing you to look. I find Cassandra Wilson’s to be more like floating through a Southern swamp at night, listening to the wind blow through the trees. Then lightning flashes, revealing the hanging bodies you didn’t realize were there.

  • Something I wrote back when Ferguson was going down:

    https://cvdanes.wordpress.com/2014/12/01/strange-fruit-post-ferguson-a-poem/

    American towns bear a strange fruit
    Blood on the eaves and blood from pursuit
    Black bodies still in the afternoon breeze
    Strange fruit lying on the ground indeed

    An urban scene or rural house
    The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
    The scent of gunfire bitter and fresh
    Then the sudden smell of fear and death

    There is a fruit for the crows to pluck
    For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
    For the sun to rot, for The Man to drop
    Here is a strange and bitter crop

    • (((realinterrobang)))

      Very, very nice update. Wow.

    • Ash

      Chilling update – brava.

  • Bob

    About a year or so ago, I heard an interview on NPR with Billy Crystal and he recounted his story of his uncle Milt Gabler and the recording of Strange Fruit with Billie Holliday. It was a very interesting story. This was my first introduction to Strange Fruit. https://youtu.be/LvueZUzHQNI

  • Kurzbein

    My wife and I visited The King Center in Atlanta years ago. (MLK Jr’s tomb is there as well as his boyhood home a block or so away.) At that time, the King Center had an exhibit of lynching photographs. Due to the graphic nature of the exhibit it was separated from the rest of the center. You entered the exhibit through a dimly-lit corridor, and Billie Holliday’s version of “Strange Fruit” played as you passed through the corridor and into the exhibit. It was the first time that I’d ever heard the song, and it completely floored me, as did the photographs that came after. One of the most eerily moving experiences of my life.

  • nhradar

    I’ve got to go with the original. Holiday haunts like no one else.

    I was listening to it a lot last winter after another Fresh Aire interview where I learned that Meeropol took in Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s kids when they went to prison.

  • DJ

    The juxtaposition of the beauty of ripening fruit with the horror of lynching is an unparalleled poetic metaphor. The over-ripened fruit, rotting as it swings in the wind… What it must have been like, to hear Hoilday’s stunningly gorgeous voice, the first time she sang this song.

    There is a good correlary in another important song from the era, which should also be remembered at this horrible time in our nation: Woody Guthrie’s haunting and beautiful “Deportee,” about a plane wreck that killed farm workers being flown back to Mexico:

    is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
    Is this the best way we can raise our good crops?
    To scatter like dry leaves, to rot on the topsoil,
    To be known by no name except “deportee?”

    • Well, that’s depressing. The lesson America has learned in the last 80 years isn’t to change our laws and treat migrant workers like they’re people, but rather to call them illegal aliens instead of deportees.

      • DJ

        Guthrie makes a point of naming them: “Goodbye to mi Juan, goodbye, Rosalita…”

        At least, let’s give them their names. It is the least we can do.

    • allin58

      Damn, I forgot about that song. When you think of all the country stars who covered it back in the day you have to see how much the right has co-opted the rural psyche.

    • RBHolb

      The song was based on a real incident. Guthrie was incensed that the news accounts of the plane wreck at Los Gatos (the actual name of the song) didn’t mention any names.

    • (((realinterrobang)))

      That’s a stunning song. I vaguely regret having listened to it at work.

      • Emmryss

        The recently passed & deeply mourned Jimmy LaFave’s version — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGD1qanImq4

        • DJ

          Wow, cool to hear the tin whistle with it. That was unexpected and well-played.

          ETA: Oh, I remember now that there’s an Irish connection to the song. There was some Irish folk group that had a hit out of this song 50 years ago. I suppose that explains the tin whistle.

  • Thom

    There is a very good PBS Independent Lens documentary about the song: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/strangefruit/film.html

  • ThresherK

    How many pop songs touch on Strange Fruit?

    I wasn’t aware of any until this one.

  • Nanker Phledge

    Thank you, Christa

  • Matthew White

    My nomination for WORST version of this song would be Katey Sagal singing it in Sons of Anarchy while Juice hung himself with a chain. Not only can that woman not sing nearly as well as she and her husband Kurt Sutter seem to think she can it was totally inappropriate to the scene. Normally I liked the cheesy covers of classic songs on that show. It seemed part of the low-rent vibe. But that one hit waaayyyy off the mark.

  • it also served as inspiration for the name of a cool (but now defunct) UK record label. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strange_Fruit_Records

  • Cheap Wino

    Wow, I used to listen to Billie Holiday all the time in my 20s but haven’t in a while. I’d forgotten how amazing and brilliant she was. Perfectly chosen tune for this Friday, considering.

    I really like India.Arie but thought her version missed the mark – the intonations are all wrong and don’t capture the torture and sorrow inherent in the song. But don’t let that scare you away, her I Am Not My Hair is a great tune:

    I am not my hair
    I am not this skin
    I am not your expectation

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DAtTV0NATA

    ETA: I’m pretty sure I first heard about this song on this blog — thanks, LGM.

  • mortimer2000

    I’m sure all you lefty pinkos know that Abel Meeropol and his wife adopted the two Rosenberg children after their parents were executed. ICYMI, here’s an interesting interview from last year with Robert Meeropol about his adoptive father and the song:
    Part One

    Part Two

    • keta

      Great read. Thanks for this.

  • RBHolb

    Billie Holliday talked about the song quite a bit in the book Lady Sings the Blues. She gave a detailed story of the first time she sang it in the South.

  • altofront

    Excellent post! I think it’s important to note that despite the song’s thematic focus on the South that the photograph that so shocked Meeropol was of a lynching in Marion, Indiana.

  • btfjd

    I am a reasonably aware person, knowledgeable about the civil rights movement (I thought), but until I was in my 40’s I had not only never heard this song, I’d never even heard of it. Then one day I was driving, and NPR played Billie Holliday’s version. I’ve never been so shocked and moved by any song in my life. Compared to this, the protest songs of the 50’s and 60’s, which I loved, seemed like weak tea indeed.

  • DaftPunkd

    I’m partial to Rene Marie’s medley, as I think she’s the pre-eminent jazz vocalist of our time (IMHO.)

    She hit the scene with swingers like “I like you” and “Surrey with a fringe” not too long after leaving her ex-husband who forbid her from pursuing a singing career. She possesses an unparalleled vocal instrument and her songwriting and arranging have evolved to a deeply felt and exquisitely personal story telling. While her band is tight, those attending her current shows expecting a toe-tapping love fest better be ready for her to rip their hearts from their chests.

  • CP

    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.

    Yeah, given how much of the Southern population is and always has been black, I have to call bullshit on a purported symbol of Southern heritage that, right off the bat, excludes so many Southerners.

  • LastUniversalCommonAncestor

    Reggae version by UB40, 1980:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8HIypalzKVs

  • gilby

    I rather like the sparseness of Tori Amos’s cover.

    https://youtu.be/Ieo5v2DuZkk

  • TroubleMaker13

    “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.”

    Thanks for this. I’m a *literal* Son of the Confederacy– every one of the male ancestors in my father’s line who were of age at the time fought for the Confederacy, some as officers. I’ve seen the pre-war census logs where their slave holdings were tabulated. I’d venture that I have more of a claim to this bullshit “heritage” than most of these sick fucks and I’m here to say: burn it all to the fucking ground and salt the ashes. It’s nothing but shame.

    • CP

      “My ancestors would spit on me if I broke bread with a crow.”
      “So would mine, but fuck them, they’re dead.”

    • chethardy

      What do you mean “some” as officers? It’s well established that everyone was at least a captain.

  • prostratedragon

    Version by Jose James, from his Billie Holiday tribute album.

  • Most American of all

    Sounds silly but this post made this day.

  • Smarter than Your Average Bear

    I am particularly fond of this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Qf_aytrlpQ

  • carl

    Hello:

    You write: “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.”

    When you write that your family left the South by moving to Florida (at least, that’s how I understood what you wrote) I’m confused by the implication that Florida isn’t the South or isn’t as Southern. Though Florida trailed Georgia and Mississippi in the total number of lynchings, one report attributed this to the smaller number of black people in Florida and noted that that Florida has one of the highest per capita percentages of Black lynching victims: for every 1,250 Black people in Florida between 1882 to 1930, one was lynched, a rate that was seven times higher than the rate for North Carolina and almost twice the rate that was in Georgia. http://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/catalog/45ewq3gp9780252064135.html

    Now, when I was growing up in the 60s, there were some TV programs broadcast out of Hollywood, Florida, and as a kid I saw the sunshine and oranges and Hollywood like everyone else … but I also saw Andrew Young, one of Martin Luther King’s top aides, take the worst beating of his life in St. Augustine, Fla. If you want to get a taste of how Southern Florida is, then read “The Devil in the Grove” (https://www.amazon.com/Devil-Grove-Thurgood-Marshall-Groveland/dp/0061792268), a tour de force in systematic police brutality, forced labor, torture, constitutional violations, murder.

    Finally, you know what they call Jacksonville, Fla? The largest south Georgia town in north Florida.

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