Trisha Shetty (Editor)

Strange Fruit

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Covid-19
B-side  Fine and Mellow
Format  78 rpm
Genre  Blues, Jazz
Released  1939
Recorded  April 20, 1939
Label  Commodore
Strange Fruit

"Strange Fruit" is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who first sang and recorded it in 1939. Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem and published in 1937, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the South at the turn of the century, but continued there and in other regions of the United States. According to the Tuskegee Institute, 1,953 Americans were murdered by lynching, about three fourths of them black. The lyrics are an extended metaphor linking a tree’s fruit with lynching victims. Meeropol set it to music and, with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York City venues in the late 1930s, including Madison Square Garden.

Contents

The song continues to be covered by numerous artists, including Nina Simone, UB40 and Annie Lennox and has inspired novels, other poems, and other creative works. In 1978, Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Lyricist E. Y. Harburg referred to the song as a "historical document." It was also dubbed, "a declaration of war... the beginning of the civil rights movement." by record producer Ahmet Ertegun.

Poem and song

"Strange Fruit" was originated as a poem written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.

The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.

Billie Holiday's performances and recordings

Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Cafe Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her. Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances. Because of the power of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.

Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS. When Holiday's producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release from her contract so she could record it; Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band was used for the session. Because Gabler worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction. On the recording, Holiday starts singing after 70 seconds. Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.

Holiday recorded two major sessions of the song at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The song was highly regarded; the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies, in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling recording.

In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday suggested that she, together with Meeropol, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick and Hilton Als dismissed that claim in their work Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, writing that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch". When challenged, Holiday—whose autobiography had been ghostwritten by William Dufty —claimed, "I ain't never read that book."

Billie Holiday was so well known for her rendition of "Strange Fruit" that "she crafted a relationship to the song that would make them inseparable."

Influence

In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of The New York Post described "Strange Fruit": "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise."

Honors

  • 1999: Time magazine named Strange Fruit as "Best Song of the Century" in its issue dated December 31, 1999.
  • 2002: The Library of Congress honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to add to the National Recording Registry.
  • Serbian rock musician, journalist and writer Dejan Cukić wrote about "Strange Fruit" as among 45 songs that changed the history of popular music in his book 45 obrtaja: Priče o pesmama (2007).
  • 2010: The New Statesman listed it as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs”.
  • The Atlanta Journal-Constitution listed the song as Number One on "100 Songs of the South".
  • Politics

    British Singer Rebecca Ferguson, publicly declined an invitation from president-elect Donald Trump to sing at his inauguration saying that she would perform only if she could sing Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

    Comics

  • Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette and John Totleben's comic book Swamp Thing #42 (1985) features a story titled "Strange Fruit" for a horror story about southern racism.
  • Mark Waid and artist J. G. Jones produced a comic book dealing with themes of racism and civil rights, entitled Strange Fruit for Boom! Studios.
  • Music

  • Kanye West samples Nina Simone's 1965 rendition of "Strange Fruit" on "Blood on the Leaves", a song from his sixth studio album Yeezus.
  • Mick Jenkins samples Carmen McRae's 1962 rendition of "Strange Fruit" on the track "Martyrs", from his 2015 EP The Water[s].
  • Strange Froots, named after Billie Holiday's rendition, sample her 1939 version in the outro of their song "Okra Confessions", an interlude on their eponymous 2014 debut EP.
  • Literature

  • Lillian Smith's novel Strange Fruit (1944) was said to have been inspired by Holiday's version of the song.
  • Television

  • Katey Sagal with The Forest Rangers and Blake Mills's cover was used in the Sons of Anarchy episode, "Fruit for the Crows" (2011), in which a club member tries to hang himself.
  • Season 1 Episode 2 of The Man in the High Castle depicts a vinyl record playing the song.
  • Cuisine

  • The Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant The Friendly Toast included a drink called Strange Fruit, after Smith's novel, on a menu of cocktails named after banned books. In 2015 this generated controversy, as a patron took the name as a reference to the song and found it inappropriate. The drink was later removed from the menu.
  • References

    Strange Fruit Wikipedia


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