Learn the story behind the song performed by Andra Day in "United States vs. Billie Holiday" now on Hulu Recorded by jazz legend Billie Holiday in 1939, “Strange Fruit” is considered the first significant song of the Civil Rights movement and the first direct assault against racial lynchings in the South. First sung in New York’s Café Society, these revolutionary lyrics have taken up a life of their own, as David Margolick discusses in his revealing account of the song and the struggle it came to personify. Voted the “Song of the Century"” by Time, “Strange Fruit” is a searing evocation of lynching. And when Billie Holiday sang it, she held audiences in rapt attention, moving some to tears, others to anger, and all to a heightened awareness of the racist violence that was still, nearly a century after the Civil War, taking the lives of African Americans. Now, David Margolick’s account cuts away the myths that have grown up around both Holiday and her most famous song, allowing readers to discover the true origins of “Strange Fruit"” and the circuitous paths it took to the center of a nation’s conscience. Margolick establishes the political and cultural context that surrounded “Strange Fruit” in 1939—a year in which there were three recorded lynchings and suspicion of many others, and which saw the publication of Gone with the Wind—and traces the song’s journey through the red-baiting 50s and the incipient Civil Rights movement of the 60s, right up to the reverence it still inspires today. Along the way, Margolick includes commentary and reaction to the song from black and white audiences of different eras, and writers and musicians as varied as Lena Horne, Paul Robeson, Pauline Kael, Charles Mingus, Cassandra Wilson, Maya Angelou, among others. Exploring the intricate nexus between jazz, race, and politics, Strange Fruit opens a window onto an extraordinary song, the woman who sang it, and the role it played in our culture’s evolving consciousness of racism.
A fascinating look at the song that changed how people looked at Billie Holiday. I had no idea that she didn't write the song, having of course heard & read in several places that she did. The breakdown of who really wrote it, why and how the story got changed is well worth the read.
A short and interesting book on the seminal jazz song Strange Fruit. The book puts the song in its historical context, it was written and performed at a time when popular music didn't touch on social issues, as it does as a matter of course these days.
This short but fascinating book looks at how the song "Strange Fruit" came into being, how and when it was performed, and its legacy after the death of Billie Holiday. I learned a lot and the book was supplemented by stories from those who either saw Holiday perform the song live or talked of how the song impacted their lives. A quick and informative book for anyone interested in Holiday, jazz, or race relations in the 1940's and 50's.
Very interesting. I learned more about a song I was unfamiliar with, a place and time period I didn't know much about, and theories about the performer and performance. I lost interest after awhile b.c I was getting tired of theories.
I still remember my physical and emotional reaction to hearing Billie Holiday's recording of "Strange Fruit" for the first time, sitting in a jazz appreciation class in college. To this day, I cannot think of one song that has ever touched me in such a dramatic fashion. I'm not even sure I have the words to accurately convey what happened to me in those moments, listening to such a short, bare, dark and deeply condemning song. The words are stunning in their double edged play of pastoral and murder; wrapped in a voice like Lady Day's, it is the most stunningly beautiful and macabre piece of music I believe I've ever heard.
This book treats "Strange Fruit" like a living being, telling the story of it's creation and it's fame. The song and Lady Day's career are intimately wrapped together and the author doesn't shy away from that fact or try to belittle it. Rather he strives to give the song and it's place in jazz history greater depth and meaning. Most interesting are the first hand accounts from various people of their experiences seeing and hearing Strange Fruit (usually through a Lady Day performance), that the author leaves written in their own words. I also greatly enjoyed his interviews with modern day performers who have recorded and/or performed the piece; interestingly enough recording AND performing live are not as simpatico as one would think.
The book itself is an interesting concept: tell the story of a famous song, not the original performer or composer, but the history of the actual song and it's performances. I enjoyed it very much for it's historical analysis of such an amazing piece of music. It's a short and fascinating read for anyone who is a fan of the piece or Lady Day.
"Her slow drawn-out sound was the sound of her time: People then took time to listen to a story, and she could tell one. I'm not sure, but I think that the first time I heard Billie Holiday's singing was the first time I realized that a singer could approximate all the bullshit and beauty that goes into a love affair." -(Hilton Als' introduction to the book)
Just picked this book up at Half Price. I'd heard this book mentioned somewhere before, perhaps on NPR, and I like the concept. It's not just a biographical sketch of Holiday, but the biography of a song, the singer's signature song -- one that nearly moves me to tears whenever I read the first two lines and one that breaks my heart when I hear Holiday sing it. Read all of the lyrics of the song, and it's an incredibly gruesome thing, full of blood and rotting corpses and bulging eyeballs plucked by crows. It sounds like it was penned by Edgar Allen Poe rather than being an anthem for racial justice; a plea to the decency of humankind. It's all in how it's handled, how it's felt, and how it's sung. Holiday didn't "write" it, per se, but her voice writes it. It's hard to imagine a lynching better described in so few words. A swinging corpse treated no differently by the forces of nature than the fruit itself. The moment in 1939 when Holiday sang it was a seminal moment in civil rights. It was an incendiary song. The audience at Cafe Society did not know how to react when such a frank and brutal protest was put forth, no matter how artfully. The book relates this history; the song's rather checkered history thereafter and Holiday's own sketchy life. Interestingly, the title of this book was changed from this to "Strange Fruit; Biography of a Song." And I think that's probably for the better. I just read the first few pages. I like it.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I'm just over halfway through but am confident enough to issue a final judgment. I'm thinking that even at this short length, this might have best been fodder for a long magazine article rather than a full book. But, in any case, it's the last word on the subject. The song, the artist, the issues and the period interest me greatly. A smoothly written tome that sifts through facts and myths, an interesting "micro history" that looks at the macro via the device of a popular song and its history, and a good pop cultural summer read -- and I would recommend it as such.
Addendum: Something I failed to mentioned previously is that the book is spiced up with nice oral history segments from various witness and commentators in the civil rights, labor and protest/activist movements, as well as music critics, scholars and performers in various genres of music -- people who either heard Holiday perform the song or simply heard recordings of it and were influenced by it. The very back of the book contains a discography of all known recordings of the song.
Great for a longer article in a magazine, but I don't think there was enough to warrant an entire book. There was too much repetition - and quite a few personal recollections of people who saw Holiday perform Strange Fruit, some of which were interesting, but most were just normal memories.
I did like the look at how the song became a part of Holiday's repertoire, and how it became a part of her myth-building. But I wanted Margolick to go into greater detail about the history of the song (and maybe about Meeropol, who probably merited more of a look). It's a possibility that there isn't much in the historical record, thus the short book, but I was still wanting more...
"The story of a song?", I thought. I wasn't even sure if there would be enough material to write a book about a song, but the song happens to be 'Strange Fruit', and there was a lot to learn about it. This book was written in an easy, non-academic style and its content covers quite a bit of how the song, "Strange Fruit", formed a part of Billie Holiday's legendary career, how audiences, the press, radio and TV reacted to it, and what part it played in the civil rights movement, as far as awareness was concerned. It was a good read --though a short one.
I followed this song through the pages of this book. I read this as if I was a song critic following the birth, life and legacy of lyrics that set out to change the conscience of a nation. The pictures that accompany this book, I felt, painted an early picture for the melody of this important song. this song may not get airplay, but there is nothing stopping anyone today from experiencing it, thanks to modern technology. These pages, though, made you wish you were there when Billie brought this song to life during her career.
Er zijn heel wat artiesten wiens afgelegde traject boeiend genoeg was om er een boek over te schrijven. Er zijn zelfs heel wat albums die zo goed zijn, uit zoveel lagen samengesteld zijn, of zo’n sterkte impact hadden/hebben, dat ze er een boek over afdwingen. Er zijn echter niet zo heel veel songs die belangrijk genoeg zijn om het enige onderwerp te vormen van een boek. “Strange Fruit” is er zo eentje. Het is tevens een voorbeeld van een song die altijd verbonden zal blijven aan zangeres Billie Holiday, ook al schreef ze die song niet zelf en was hij, in tegenstelling tot wat ze zelf durfde beweren, evenmin voor haar geschreven.
Zelfs tot op de dag van vandaag blijft de horror van “Strange Fruit” verschrikkelijk om te aanhoren, of zelfs om te lezen.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Ik leerde de song kennen toen ik een dubbelaar van de Diapason d’Or-reeks had aangeschaft. Het bevatte vooral oudere opnames van de dan nog jonge Billie Holiday, en klassieke songs als “I Wished On The Moon”, het vlugge “What A Little Moonlight Can Do”, evergreen “Summertime”, “Fine And Mellow” (een van haar beste eigen songs), “Body And Soul” en nog een hele hoop greatness op een schijfje. Tot de dag van vandaag zijn die opnames uit de tweede helft van de jaren dertig ook mijn favorieten, meer nog dan de door zovelen zo bejubelde songs uit de latere Verve-periode. Tussen die swingende, toegankelijke en instant memorabele jazzsongs zat er echter eentje dat uit de toon viel, “Strange Fruit”. Het was een ballad, maar het was geen doorsnee jazz, geen blues, geen gospel. En die tekst. Over in de wind wiegende lichamen die werden opgehangen. Keiharde metaforen die ervoor zorgden dat “Strange Fruit” een van de meest radicale protestsongs van zijn tijd was.
De song was hard en deprimerend, en zou decennia lang té gevoelig blijven. Tot op de dag van vandaag is het een song die veel (vooral zwarte) artiesten niet willen of kunnen opnemen of live performen. (*) Nochtans is het nummer, in tegenstelling tot latere aanklachten zoals bvb. “Mississippi Goddamn” van Nina Simone, eerder ingehouden. Dit is geen uitgespuwde verontwaardiging of koleirige roep om een betere, rechtvaardige wereld, maar een misselijkmakend plaatje op een presenteerblad. De intensiteit van Holidays originele versie (van 20 april 1939) is van de ingehouden, smeulende soort. De beeldspraak die wordt gebruikt is immers zo krachtig dat Holiday ook zonder veel poeha de geur van geroosterd vlees en het getik van vallende bloeddruppels kan oproepen.
David Margolick schreef Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, And An Early Cry For Civil Rights omdat het nu eenmaal een van die songs is die niet aan kracht inboeten. De lynchings zijn intussen verleden tijd in de Verenigde Staten (het ging om meer dan 4.000 gevallen tussen 1889 en 1940), maar de context van racisme en haat blijft natuurlijk relevant. “Strange Fruit” is nog steeds wrang en confronterend. Of, in de woorden van pianist Mal Waldron, die Holiday begeleidde aan het einde van haar leven: “It’s like rubbing people’s noses in their own shit”. In Strange Fruit gaat Margolick in op het hele verhaal: de schrijver van de song (Abel Meeropol, een linkse, Joodse leerkracht en componist uit New York, onder het pseudoniem Lewis Allan), hoe het bij Billie Holiday terechtkwam, de club waar ze de song voor het eerst zong, hoe de ontvangst was bij publiek en pers, en wat het teweeg bracht.
Al dit doet hij vooral door informatie te geven die hij opdeed tijdens het interviewen van talloze omstaanders, waardoor het boek iets heeft van een enorme puzzel van quotes die samen het hele verhaal vormen. Niet enkel muzikanten die samenwerkten met Holiday komen aan het woord, maar ook nachtclubeigenaars die haar lieten optreden, muzikanten die de song later speelden, critici over het moment waarop ze de song voor het eerst te horen kregen. Zelfs personeel van de nachtclubs mag zijn zegje doen. De song had vooral z’n voorstanders, maar er waren natuurlijk ook naysayers. Zo waren producers Ahmet Ertegun en Norman Granz meteen onder de indruk. Enkelen vonden het dan weer niks: voor John Hammond, die enkele jaren alles ervoor had gedaan om Holiday binnen te krijgen bij de band van Benny Goodman, was de song het begin van het einde, het moment waarop de ster werd omarmd door de linkse intellectuelen die ervoor zorgden dat ze zichzelf veel te serius ging nemen. Atlantic-man Jerry Wexler vond dan weer dat het al te zeer gericht was op propaganda, zeker aangezien het voorafgaande werk van Holiday eerde de ‘luchtige’ kant van de jazz belichaamde.
De song miste z’n impact niet, en bracht eveneens een grotere interesse in de persoon en muziek van Holiday op gang. Terwijl in het diepe Zuiden niet het risico genomen kon worden om de song te spelen, werd het door linke blanken en zwarten in het Noorden enthousiast onthaald. De labiele Holiday was echter ook iemand met een levensstijl die niet onbesproken kon blijven. Ze was naar verluidt biseksueel, hield er talloze minnaars op na, had problemen met drank én drugs (“In the spring of 1947 she checked into a New York hospital for detoxification (a nurse was among several people who supposedly supplied her with drugs there) and within a few months she was busted in Philadelphia, spending nearly a year in a federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. (Before her first day was out, she had gotten high again).”, pag. 108), en een talent om zich te omringen met mannen die haar fysiek misbruikten.
Er zijn talloze anecdotes over hoe Holiday bezopen of high het podium opkroop en vooral na concerten amper in staat was tot basiscommunicatie. Net als een hele resem andere jazzgroten uit de jaren veertig tot zestig (Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, de lijst is oneindig) was ze een junkie, een emotioneel wrak dat de scheidingslijn tussen waarheid en fictie amper nog wist te vinden. De autobiografie Lady Sings The Blues (1956) zou naar verluidt zo veel onwaarheden en onjuistheden bevatten dat weinig nog met zekerheid kan aangenomen worden. Net door die tragische levenloop die ervoor zorgde dat Holiday in 1959 overleed op amper vierenveertigjarige leeftijd, werd de song natuurlijk opgezadeld met een extra laag miserie en onlosmakelijk verbonden met het leven en lijden van de zangeres.
In Strange Fruit richt Margolick zijn aandacht echter vooral (wijselijk) op de weerklank van de song zonder de lezer te overrompelen met al te veel smeuïge details. Door de eindeloze aaneenstrengeling van meningen lijkt het aanvankelijk te blijven bij een oppervlakkige opsomming van het hele gebeuren rond de song, maar al die perspectieven zorgen uiteindelijk voor een beeld dat waarschijnlijk vollediger en genuanceerder is dan wanneer Margolick zich enkel had beziggehouden met geschiedschrijving en zijn een bewijs dat het zijn plaats zowel verdient tussen andere jazzmonumenten als “Body & Soul, “Take The “A” Train”, “Koko”, “Lonely Woman” en “A Love Supreme”, als tussen protestsongs als “We Shall Overcome”, “This Land Is Your Land” en “Masters Of War”. (****)
(*) Helaas geen hindernis voor klojo’s als Tori Amos en Sting.
My recent classic European literature escapade took a temporary halt for something slightly closer to home at the moment. I never thought I'd see the day when people are marching through the streets protesting for civil rights like they did nearly 60 years ago. It's an unfortunate deja vu. With that, it has never been a better time to be properly educated about the history of the civil rights movement.
In 1937, Abel Meeropol published the famous civil rights poem "Strange Fruit", which graphically depicted the lynching of black Americans. Not long later, in 1939, Billie Holiday performed it as a song for the first time in the only integrated night club in New York. The performance was met with hesitant applause. But Billie Holiday continued to perform the song for the next 20 years until her untimely death at the age of 44 due to Cirrhosis. Over the course of her short life she dealt with substance abuse which slowly chipped away voice, and even her public reputation. But her musical and influence and civil rights legacy lives on in ways many don't even know. Of course "Strange Fruit" continues to be known as a legendary turning point in artistic phrasing for singers. But the true legacy of the song lays in politics. "Strange Fruit" brought out the worse and best out of societies world wide. The song was banned on African radio during the antisemitic apartheid era, since the poem was written by a Jewish school teacher. In America, a Federal appeals court judge cited the song as evidence that death by hanging was to be considered "cruel and usual".
One of the first things I was caught off guard by in the book was the extreme glorification of the song's influence on society, jazz, and popular music. I had never heard of the song in any of the countless video essays I've watched on jazz. The song has faced scrutiny by musicians because of it's inability to fall into a genre. It has been considered to be "too artsy" to be folk music. And "too political" to be considered jazz. Billie Holiday's political work was not expected from a stereotypical black woman singer. Artistic insights of protest were normally expected from men.
David Margolick's biography is an unfiltered look into the oppressed life of one of the most influence pop singers of the 40's and early 50's, as well as the controversial legacy her work has left behind. I greatly enjoyed Margolick's way of explaining her substance abuse's destructive affects on her life without damaging her public image like the media did when she was alive. Billie Holiday lied about her imperfect childhood in her autobiography which the book was quick to call out. However, she was defended honestly and justly. My only complaint is that Billie's career with the song "Strange Fruit" over shadowed details about the other artists before her who've adapted the poem as well. I recommend anyone who wants to understand more about the history of political poetry and song writing to read this book.
Strange Fruit is the haunting song about lynchings in the south. It is a notable song of the Civil Rights movement popularized by Billie Holliday. Although Holliday has taken at least partial credit for the authorship of the song, it was actually Abel Meeropol who penned the poem that became the song. This story really is about the unique relationship between Holliday and Strange Fruit. Others have taken a turn at singing it but Holliday exuded soul and mourning into the song, bringing the listener to that tree with the strange fruit hanging from it. Holliday's struggle with drugs and ultimate demise is also covered.
This is a short book that can be read in a few hours. There's no real plot or complete timeline. What it does convey is the unusual connection between singer and song.
A thorough exploration of the origins, life, and evolution of "Strange Fruit". If you haven't heard the song - and you should, no doubt - this will make you listen to it over and over. This is a short and quick read, but that could be expected for a text on a single song, even one as influential as this. In the end, it gave me a deeper understanding of the song, and what more can you ask for? Recommended for the background and the reflections on seeing Billie in person - some magical moments that cannot be recreated are detailed.
É uma leitura bem gostosa e que flui bem, tem varias passagens bem interessantes, dá um contexto bem bacana sobre a época e me deixou muito instigado a conhecer mais sobre a vida da Billie Holiday. Parece um artigo de revista bem longo e gostaria que ele se aprofundasse mais em varias partes, mas para o que eu queria ler caiu como uma luva.
This book is a biography of "Strange Fruit," an historic, haunting jazz song that is mostly forgotten today. It was first published in 1937 as a poem called "Bitter Fruit" by Abel Meeropol, who later set the lines to music. However, it wasn't until Billie Holiday started performing the song in 1939 at Cafe Society, a progressive jazz club in Greenwich Village, NY, that the song became famous, or in some cases, infamous.
Meeropol wrote Strange Fruit" to protest racism and the lynching of African Americans, perhaps influenced by the lynchings in 1930 of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana. The song provoked controversy and sometimes even violence when Holiday performed it, coming 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. It would go on to become an early ballad of the Civil Rights Movement, chosen as one of the top songs of the 20th century, and picked as one of "ten songs that actually changed the world."
Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.
While the lyrics and music are powerful, it was Billie Holiday's performance that helped turn the song into an indelible commentary on racism and injustice in American society. Holiday always performed the song as the last offering of the evening. She sang it in a dark room with a single spotlight on her face. She insisted that the room be completely silent. After she finished, she left the stage without a word and did not return to sing another song; "Strange Fruit" was always the final song of the night.
Billie Holiday is my favorite jazz singer. She is a sad, but beautiful soul. In her voice, I hear the pain of life, especially her life, which faced racism, heroin addiction, alcoholism, physical abuse, and other abuses. At times, it's almost too much to hear. At other times, when I'm feeling sad or reflective, it's exactly what I need.
One of my favorite quotes in the book is something that clarinetist Tony Scott said about Holiday in comparison to the other First Lady of Song, Ella Fitzgerald: "With a singer like Ella, when she sings 'my man has left me,' you think the guy's going down the street for a loaf of bread. But when Lady sings it, man, you see the bags are packed, the cat's going down the street, and you know he ain't never coming back!'"
This book, by David Margolick, is worth your time if you're a fan of Billie Holiday or "Strange Fruit." It's written in an essay-style, making it a quick read, but at times I wish it had come with a little more scholarly depth to it. I missed the lack of citations and an index. Still, I'm glad to know more about this song that I first heard while driving in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, and that continues to haunt me to this day.
Writing about music, a friend once told me, is stupid. While I wouldn't go that far, I would say it is more than difficult. But although this book concerns a singer and one of her most important songs, it is much more about pain than music. I cannot recall the first time I heard this song and because of that lack of recollection I'm pretty certain I first heard it as a child when the strange fruit hadn't provoked the true meaning of the song. What I found interesting about Margolick's approach to this book was the context of the piece for both its time in history and the life of the woman who made the song her own, and for those who not only heard her sing, but sing this very song.
The song is powerful as simply an audio recording with zero context, but when paired with descriptions of Billie Holiday standing perfectly still with her head thrown back as if she were the grieving woman standing at the foot of the tree where the man she loved was lynched, who then let out all her pain at the now bare branches, and then after sounding the last note on 'bitter crop' she would never sing another note, because there was nothing left to let out. Who could not envision the anguish?
Billie Holiday, is is told, never personally witnessed a lynching, but she was certainly witness to racism, so I can understand what that song could do to her, and how her anguish of it and other pain from her life would fuel her self-medication and ultimately her death.
I connected with this song initially as a teenager and have been amazed to see my 5-year-old daughter hear it and instantly recognize its poignancy. (We ended up having a long conversation about lynching, which fascinated her. Not sure what to make of that.) I must echo other reviewers, however, who noted that this really seems like something that should have been a nice long magazine piece but is not really enough to make into a book. It feels padded, and also a little too star-struck (with the song, jazz generally, and Billie Holiday). I like Billie Holiday but never found her to have the vocal heft or rawness that I prefer in a great blues singer, and all the jazz-great-name-dropping got a little old. The book was interesting... until it was boring, and hard to finish once I realized how much repetition and navel-gazing was involved.
Most of the time, deeply evocative and powerful music makes me want to move. Strange Fruit is a song that demands still reflection, it's power is that you CAN'T move when you hear it.
It's not often that a song will have a biography, or that a song will be so indelibly connected to a single singer - but Strange Fruit and Billie Holiday are married to each other. This was a tale well told, of a song that resonates with the pain, and anger, and rage of slavery and racism. It's not an easy read. It is worth it.
I love the fact a biography has been made of a song but the writing didn't always grab me. There are contradictory notes included on the life of Holiday and the song Strange Fruit, which ties in to the life of this otherworldly singer. It is impossible to discuss Strange Fruit without Billie Holiday as center stage, even though other singers, most notably Nina Simone, have sung the song. The historical context is set up well and this serves as a useful reference book for the time and for the life of the song.
This is a slim volume, a very quick read, and a great idea. just as the title says, it's a bio of the song Strange Fruit, most famously recorded by Billie Holiday, and it really gives an impression of how powerful and disturbing it must have been back in the day. It is such a song of its time and while i can appreciate the song today, it thankfully doesn't have quite the same relevance as it did in 1939. It was great to get this perspective.
Kind of like a 33 1/3 book, but about a single song instead of an entire album. Essentially this is a bunch of famous and less-famous people's comments about the song "Strange Fruit," strung together with a fairly minimal narrative/analytical skeleton. A quick read—and good background for teaching this song in class.
Unless you have heard Billie Holiday sing this song you can't begin to imagine the feelings it stirs. considered the first protest song, Strange Fruit is the story of lynchings in the American south. Even though it came out at a time that the practice was waning and considering it was written by a white, Jewish, northern school teacher it still sends a powerful message.
I loved this book. Very few books and songs can literally make. Chill go down your spine. Hearing the stories of people who were there to witness the magic of Lady Day singing this is priceless. Literally makes me thankful to be able to read. I'll tell visit this book in a year from now. I'm sure I've missed a small gem some where'd and I want it all