Many may not realize, but legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday was a big part of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, her 1939 song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” made her a target of the FBI.
“When you think of Billie Holiday, you think of this brilliant tortured jazz singer. I didn’t know that she kicked off the Civil Rights Movement. That’s history and they keep it from us,” said Lee Daniels, who has directed an upcoming film about Holiday’s life.
Eleanora Fagan, known professionally as “Billie Holiday,” had a career which spanned 26 years. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young, Holiday had an innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.
“Strange Fruit” stunned audiences and redefined music. The iconic song is a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism. The lyrics, first written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx – mixed with Holiday’s vocals – stirs souls.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees”
Meeropol was a dedicated Communist and progressive thinker who was also a part-time writer and poet. Sometime in the 1930s, he came upon a photo of a lynching. That image remained in Meeropol’s mind, and first led to a poem, “Bitter Fruit,” which he wrote for a 1937 union publication. The poem was set to music and renamed “Strange Fruit” and performed on several occasions, including by singer Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden. It then made its way to Holiday, who was performing at New York’s Café Society club. Her version haunted audiences, and the rest is history.
“Strange Fruit” protests the lynching of Black Americans, with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the Southern United States at the turn of the 20th century. The song has been called “a declaration of war” and “the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Holiday said that singing “Strange Fruit” 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. 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 to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
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.
Holiday died on July 17, 1959 of pulmonary edema and heart failure at the age of 44.
The song, which has received critical acclaim over the decades, will continue to live on.
Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was also included in the “Songs of the Century” list of the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
In 1999, Time Magazine named “Strange Fruit” as “Best Song of the Century.”
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to add to the National Recording Registry.
The song was included in the National Recording Registry on January 27, 2003.
In 2010, the New Statesman listed it as one of the “Top 20 Political Songs.”
In 2011, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution listed the song as Number One on “100 Songs of the South.”
Daniels’ film, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” is scheduled to be released February 26 on Hulu.