Thursday, March 02, 2017

Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit

Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem and published in 1937, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Holiday grew to embrace the song so much she began to believe she composed it. She certainly made it one of the most powerful protest songs of the time. “Strange Fruit” was released on record in 1939, and quickly became famous. It had a particular impact on the politically aware, among artists, musicians, actors and other performers, and on broader layers of students and intellectuals. It is one of the few songs that has a book dedicated to its history: David Margolick’s book, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights.

During the postwar witch-hunt, the performance of “Strange Fruit” became even more difficult. Some clubs refused to allow Holiday to sing what had become her signature song. She insisted on contracts specifying her right to sing it, but even that did not resolve the issue. Margolick’s book relates how at one club on West 52nd St. Holiday cried after her performance. “Did you see the bartender ringing the cash register all through?” she said. “He always does that when I sing.”

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