"Strange Fruit” may have been written by American song-writer and poet Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen), but ever since Billie Holiday sang the three brief stanzas to music in 1937, she’s owned it.
Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, said she always thought of her father when she sang “Strange Fruit.” He died at age thirty-nine after being denied medical treatment at a Texas “whites only” hospital. Because of that memory, Holiday was reluctant to perform the song, but did so anyway to tell people about the reality of life as a black man in America.
“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
The song was so poignant for Holiday that she laid down some rules when she sang it at her gigs: She would close the evening with the song; the waiters would stop service when she began; and the room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on her face. There would be no encore.
“Lady Day,” as Holiday was called by many at the time, began to work the song into her repertoire sixteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Jazz writer Leonard Feather referred to the song as “the first significant protest in words and music, the first significant cry against racism.”
The song’s lyrics were shocking to some members of Holiday’s mostly white audiences:
Southern trees bear 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
At times, her performance of the song was met with fierce pushback. Though many people knew that lynchings of African-Americans in the South were common, there was resistance to ending the practice among Southern whites. Racism, combined with a popular desire to limit federal power over local concerns,kept people in the North from making any successful moves to end lynchings in the South.
... One of the primary attempts to silence her came from a man named Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and an extreme racist, even for the 1930s. As Johann Hari details in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger claimed that narcotics made black people forget their place in the fabric of American society, and that jazz musicians were dangerous in particular, creating “Satanic” music under the influence of marijuana.'' ...
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