Ahmet Ertegun, the legendary producer and founder of Atlantic Records has called “Strange Fruit” a “declaration of war” and “the beginning of the civil rights movement.” TIME Magazine called it “the best song of the century;” Q Magazine “one of 10 songs that changed the world.” It is all of the above and simply one of the most important songs in the history of music.
David Margolick’s book Strange Fruit examines the controversial and disturbing ballad about racial lynching that became Billie Holiday’s signature tune. Along the way, Margolick also clears up some of the rumors and misconceptions about the song, many perpetrated by Holiday herself. The song was neither written by, nor for, Ms. Holiday; instead, it was penned by a white, Jewish schoolteacher from New York City, who would also later adopt the orphaned children of the executed Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. The song was brought to Holiday by an intermediary — the owner of the legendary Café Society nightclub in New York City.
Here the story bends. There are opposing views about whether Holiday truly understood the meaning of the song when it was introduced to her. Clearly, she came to identify closely with the song and no one could dispute that the song would soon belong to Billie Holiday. Audiences reacted differently as well; some, both black and white, did not want to hear it or have it spoil their night out. In time, it would only be performed as the final song of the night, and would leave the audience spellbound, breathless and in tears, shocked and disgusted. It’s important to keep in mind that “Strange Fruit” came out in 1939 — the same year, Margolick points out, as Gone With The Wind, “a film that embodied contemporary condescension towards blacks and black performers, and around the time that Ella Fitzgerald’s 'A Tisket A Tasket' appeared, which was more what people expected from black 'girl' singers."
Legendary record man John Hammond, who would not put the song out, believed it to be “the beginning of the end for Billie…(who) began taking herself seriously and thinking herself as very important.” Curiously, he went on, “As soon as pop artists think they are contributing to art, something happens to their art.” However, as Holiday’s life fell apart and her vices exacted their toll, the singer would indeed use the song as a badge of honor and a personal shield against those who would judge her.
“Strange Fruit” is one of a handful of songs that makes you stop what you’re doing, turn up the music, and shut the hell up. The rolling cymbals and muted trumpet reveal a soft piano that lures you in. The vocals take their time, languid, lazy, and detached in their storytelling, but before you know it, you’re a witness to a horrifying scene. The hair on the back of your neck stands on end. As one actress, who witnessed Holiday performing the song live says, “That’s what art can do.”
Likewise, Margolick’s book stands with the few cultural touchstones, such as Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, that are essential and must-read books for not only any serious music fan but anyone with an interest in American history.
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