“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday
Sonet Records [Sweden] SXP 2800, 45 RPM Extended Play
Originally recorded for Commodore Records [USA] on 20 March 1939
Rerecorded several times by Holiday, mainly for Mercury and Norman Granz’s various labels of the period (Norgran, Clef and Verve)
Nightmare in darkest blue.
If I had to describe the experience of my first listening to that song, those would be the words I'd use, as it indeed gave me nightmares for a solid week, it was so terrifying. I find myself having to consider this song to be the perfect one to play sometime Halloween night. The difference between it and the rest of the contenders is that this song was inspired by an actual act of terror that was documented with photographs and newspaper accounts at the time. No "Purple People Eater" or Alice Cooper concoction, this.
The song is "Strange Fruit."
I first heard it on my mono Sears Silvertone phonograph one twilight evening in the summer of 1972, when I was 11 years old. I was then living with my dad and grandparents in Nordheim, the northernmost neighbourhood of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. My tastes in music were beginning to expand from the pop tunes of The Grass Roots and the occasional Paul McCartney & Wings 45 into many more swing and bebop sides. This was largely my father's doings; a jazz lover, he would agree to listen to records I really liked if I also listened to his favourites from the '30s and '40s, the time of his childhood. Thus, while he started digging Three Dog Night, I became a latter-day pubescent bebopper who'd sing Charlie Ventura’s “Ha!” while walking home from school.
At the same time, I was becoming aware of what was going on in the world. Vietnam was still a hot issue, including the protests and a riot or two at Wisconsin State University-Oshkosh (as it was still called). My dad was a boxing fiend and in the last weeks of his pseudoconservativism, so I'd still sometimes hear about how Cassius Clay (he insisted on using the guy's earlier name) deserved to be knocked on his ass by Joe Frazier. Thankfully, that rightward leaning didn't last long after mid-'72; after taking a good, close look at how Richard Nixon was handling the Vietnam War, Dad got disgusted with the Republicans and by '73 he was one of the relatively few people with a "Don't Blame Me, I Voted for McGovern" bumper sticker on his car who'd actually voted for the man. (As I recall, it was once determined that there were about 5,000 more of those stickers distributed than there were actual votes recorded for George McGovern in 1972, such being the effect of the Watergate scandal.)
This was also the year that "Lady Sings the Blues," the biopic about the '40s jazz singer Billie Holiday came out, and Diana Ross was getting local radio airplay of her version of "Good Morning Heartache," a song with which Holiday was closely associated. I recalled that Dad had a copy of a Holiday LP, The Best of Billie Holiday, in his collection. It was, I'd later learn, a compilation mainly of remakes of earlier successes she'd cut in the late '40s or early '50s for producer Norman Granz, whose ‘50s output was appearing on reissues of the Verve label by ‘72. Almost all of these tunes, as it turned out, were first hits on Columbia, OKeh or Decca, but Dad didn't have those LPs, just this one.
I took a listen to the version of "Good Morning Heartache" that was on this Holiday album. I don't recall being overly impressed one way or the other by it at the time, but I was sufficiently intrigued to listen to the whole LP. As the thing played on, I laid back on my bed and started reading a book, probably one of those seemingly jillion Fawcett paperback collections of Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" comics that I was crazy about at the time. After a few minutes, the last song on side two of this LP started pouring out of the phonograph. The lyrics traveling through the air and into my ears and brain caught me off guard; by the end of the record, I was quite literally stunned.
"Southern trees bear a 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. Pastoral scene of the Gallant South, bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh, then the sudden smell of burning flesh. Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop." Sung to the most mournful melody and arrangement (just a piano, trumpet and electric guitar) I'd ever encountered.
I recall putting the book down and simply staring at the phonograph, playing the track a second and third time to make sure I'd heard what I thought I'd heard. A few days earlier, I was going through a batch of old Life and Look magazines my grandfather had saved from the '40s and '50s and came across an illustrated piece on the lynchings of people who were then politely referred to as “Negroes.” It was probably published in the wake of the Emmett Till lynching, as I vaguely recall photos of him were included. I was capable of immediately making the connection between those photographs and these lyrics.
I felt as if someone had just applied a Louisville Slugger to my ribs. I recall sitting up but unable to move much further for about four or five minutes, then taking the record off the phonograph, putting it into its sleeve and taking it back to Dad's room, all in distinctly slow motion. Dad noticed my manner of movement and asked what was wrong. I told him I'd just heard "Strange Fruit."
"That'll do it," he responded.
Perhaps contributing to my dazed state was the copy of that album I was listening to. Throughout the 1960s, when this LP had been made, the major U.S. record companies were hell bent on phasing out monaural records and only issuing stereophonic records, which had become the norm on LP by 1968 and 45s by 1971. To accomplish this, all the big companies were taking their old monaural masters and "electrically rechanneling" them into stereo, as they liked to think of it. Some companies, like Capitol, added echo chamber and/or time delay to their sides; Capitol's process was dubbed by them "Duophonic," and while it sometimes made The Beatles sound a little more interesting, it made Stan Kenton's versions of "September Song" and "Laura" insufferable. Others, like Columbia, were content to boost bass on one channel and treble on the other, which made Ravi Shankar's recordings for that label excruciating to experience in that manner. And yet others -- like M-G-M, which had acquired Verve by then -- did both, as with this Billie Holiday compilation. Listening to it on a stereo phonograph was bad enough; listening to it on a mono Silvertone gave it an added eeriness that I can best compare to Elvis Presley's semi-yodel on his recording of "Blue Moon." And, of course, though both recordings were cut in 1956, the lyrics Elvis sang were nowhere as gruesome as Billie’s; and whereas Elvis sang in his strongest voice that year, Billie was only three years away from her death, her voice having been ravaged by time and multiple forms of abuse.
Those lyrics Billie sang had been written by a Jewish (not African-American as some still assume) teacher at New York's DeWitt Clinton High School named Abel Meeropol, who had first published the lyric under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in the January 1937 edition of his labour union's periodical, the New York Teacher. His immediate inspiration for writing the lyric had been an infamous photograph of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, showing the bodies of victims Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp hanging from limbs of a tree, above the heads of dozens of white observers. The illustrator of the Sonet EP jacket appears to have had knowledge of that original photo of the Marion incident.
As fate would have it, in the 1990s I became personally acquainted with the man who had been the only surviving victim of the Marion lynching, James Cameron. By 1995, Mr. Cameron had become the curator of America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, to which I had contributed some antique materials to be exhibited, mainly racist stereograph slides from the 1890s that my grandparents had owned. On the day I delivered those items to Mr. Cameron, he was extremely gracious and insisted on giving me a personal tour of the museum and its archives. One wall was completely covered with the photograph of the lynching. In the photograph, one man in particular points with his left hand to one of the bodies while glaring directly at the camera; his image is definitely the clearest of the dozen or so onlookers in the foreground. I asked Mr. Cameron if he knew who that man was. Mr. Cameron responded that he had never seen that man before or since that photograph, and that, in the research he undertook for his autobiography, A Time of Terror, nobody still residing in Marion in the 1970s could identify who that man was, either. It was not until Mr. Cameron's death several years later that I realised, from reading one of his Milwaukee newspaper obituaries, the direct connection between the Marion lynching and Abel Meeropol's song.
“Strange Fruit” is perhaps the one song that is, to this day, most closely associated with Holiday, in no small measure because, for many years, hers were the only recordings that record buyers could find of it. Of relatively contemporary recordings to the Holiday original, there does exist a striking instrumental version that Sidney Bechet, the past master of the soprano saxophone, cut for RCA Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary label in 1943. Brilliant as Bechet’s interpretation was, the radioactive aura surrounding the Holiday original on Commodore, and the lyrics that Holiday voiced but Bechet dispensed with, spooked Nipper so badly that the Bechet version wasn’t released commercially for many years, and then mainly on European singles pressed by His Master’s Voice (later known as EMI), Victor’s then-affiliate across the Atlantic. Josh White also did a memorable folk version of the song, which, to hear White tell it, once led Holiday to threaten to kill him one night when both were booked into the pioneering ethnically-integrated New York nightclub Café Society. Of course, performers as diverse in style as Nina Simone, Sting, Jeff Buckley and Dee Dee Bridgewater have tried the song on for size. Bridgewater eventually discontinued it, being too taxing on her spirit, but once reluctantly resurrected it at a birthday party for Max Roach, at Roach’s specific request.
Of the most recent recordings, my personal favourites are the rare Tori Amos cut of it, and the grunge rock version by The Twilight Singers. Amos recorded her version in a Lee Strasberg-like manner at her New Mexico home studio one morning at 5:30 A.M., still travelling through the fog of the waking hour and refusing to even drink any water before the recording lest her voice wasn’t properly strained and vulnerable. The woman quite literally got out of her bed, turned on the recorder, walked over to the piano and cut a single take of “Strange Fruit.” As I understand it, Amos still refuses to perform the song in concert.
As for the Twilight Singers version, it’s on their 2004 album of cover versions, She Loves You. Interestingly, although that album uses the title of The Beatles’ most shimmeringly bright pop song, no Lennon-McCartneyisms are present among the tracks; among the titles that are present are “Summertime,” also strongly associated with Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.”
In the years since, the song has taken on an added significance to the LesBiGayTrans communities, far beyond the coincidence that the performer most closely associated with the song, Billie Holiday, was herself a bisexual woman. In 1977, film and theatrical producer Marc Huestis revised the song's lyric to apply to LGBT characters and made it the title piece to his film and poetry show "Strange Fruit" at the San Francisco Gay Community Center. And the original has surfaced in the repertoires of several gay male and lesbian vocal groups and choruses, one of which, the Champaign, Illinois-based Amasong, was given a Gay & Lesbian American Music Award in 1998 for their four-part a capella recording of it.
Interestingly, prior to his death, Meeropol himself had not liked the idea of updating the song with more contemporary arrangements, like the ska version UB40 has done in concert, or the impressionist ones Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Cocteau Twins cut in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the last of which is a particularly horrifying performance in its own right. Meeropol believed that the song was so heavily rooted in the 1930s that its staging should stay in the 1930s. I disagree. In Mystery Train, Greil Marcus memorably writes of the terror he imagined would befall a lone driver motoring through the Mojave Desert one ’73 midnight when, for the very first time, s/he hears the bass pattern that starts off The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone” pour out of his/her radio. That may have been the most powerful fright when Brother Marcus wrote his tome, but nowadays The Tempts would be left in the dust of the Cocteau Twins’ “Strange Fruit.”
A divergence here about the Temptations record. There exists an aircheck tape of a Larry Lujack WCFL Chicago radio show from November 1973 on the day when a jumbo jet slammed into some houses on Chicago’s south side. Lujack was a disc jockey renowned for his being the ultimate grouch, in direct contrast to the upbeat performance styles then preferred by most Top 40 programmers. A little of Lujack’s industrial-strength sourcasm is heard in the beginning of the aircheck, but it is obliterated by a news bulletin about the plane crash that includes a description by an eyewitness. There is no “SuperCFL” jingle separating the bulletin and the next record, just the abrupt beginning of – you guessed it – the bass pattern of The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.” That does remain what I suspect would be the best aural illustration of the effect Marcus was writing about.
But back now to “Strange Fruit.” I was reminded of it in October 2009, when, in my "Out Front" LesBiGayTrans news capsule podcast of the time, I announced that the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act had been passed by the U.S. Senate and was physically placed on President Obama's desk to be signed eleven years and eleven days after Shepard had died. Eyebrows were raised when I made reference in that piece to Shepard having been lynched, I suspect because most people only consider African- and Jewish-Americans to have been the victims of lynchings. Not so; the largest mass lynching took place in New Orleans in the 1880s, with all of the victims having been of Italian heritage. That incident went a long way in explaining Frank Sinatra's strong support of African-American civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s; "They weren't the only ones at the end of those ropes," Sinatra was repeatedly quoted. In Shepard's case, the perpetrators tying his body on that Laramie fence as a public display fit the customary aftermath of a historical lynching, leaving the victim to be a visual warning that their kind needed to stay in what the killers considered to be "their place."
That could very well explain why the song "Strange Fruit" is still capable of terrifying listeners past its almost unbearably grim tone and content. The locales and forms of lynching, and even the terms describing it, may have changed, but it is still happening in our lifetime, 70 years after Billie Holiday first recorded the song. The Strange Fruit is not an extinct crop.