Blood on the roots
You’re on a date and you’ve decided to investigate a new club in a former speakeasy on West 4th Street: Café Society, which calls itself “The Wrong Place for the Right People”. Even if you don’t get the gag on the way in – the doormen wear tattered clothes – then the penny drops when you enter the L-shaped, 200-capacity basement and see the satirical murals spoofing Manhattan’s high-society swells. Unusually for a New York nightclub, black patrons are not just welcomed but privileged with the best seats in the house.
You’ve heard the buzz about the resident singer, a 23-year-old black woman called Billie Holiday who made her name up in Harlem with Count Basie’s band. She has golden-brown, almost Polynesian skin, a ripe figure (Time magazine will soon condescendingly note, “She does not care enough about her figure to watch her diet, but she loves to sing”) and a single gardenia in her hair. She has a way of owning the room but she’s not flashy. Her voice is plump and pleasure-seeking, prodding and caressing a song until it yields more delights than its author had intended, bringing a spark of vivacity and a measure of cool to even the hokier material. There are many fine singers in New York in 1939, but it’s the quicksilver spirit which lies behind Holiday’s voice, beyond mere timbre and technique, that keeps you gripped.
“‘Strange Fruit’ would haunt Holiday for the rest of her life. Some fans, including her former producer John Hammond, blamed it for robbing her of her lightness”
And then it happens. The house lights go down, leaving Holiday illuminated by the hard, white beam of a single spotlight. Suddenly you can’t get a drink because the waiters have withdrawn to the back of the room. She begins her final number. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.” This, you think, isn’t your usual lovey-dovey stuff. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.” What is this? “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” Lynching? It’s a song about lynching? The chatter from the tables dries up. Every eye in the room is on the singer, every ear on the song. After the last word – a long, abruptly severed cry of “crop” – the whole room snaps to black. When the house lights go up, she’s gone.
Now ask yourself this: do you applaud, awed by the courage and intensity of the performance, stunned by the grisly poetry of the lyrics, sensing history moving through the room? Or do you shift awkwardly in your seat, shudder at the strange vibrations in the air, and think to yourself: Call this entertainment? This is the question that will throb at the heart of the vexed relationship between politics and pop for decades to come, and this is the first time it has demanded to be asked.
“It was something, the way she held her head up high, the way she phrased each word, and got to the heart of the story in a song”
Written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, ‘Strange Fruit’ was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Just prior to this, US protest songs had nothing to do with mainstream popular music. They were designed for specific audiences – picket lines, folk schools, party meetings – with an eye towards specific goals: join the union, fight the bosses, win the strike.
‘Strange Fruit’, however, did not belong to the many but to one troubled woman. It was not a song to be sung lustily with your comrades during a strike but something profoundly lonely and inhospitable. The music – stealthy, half in shadow – incarnated the horror described in the lyrics. And instead of resolving itself into a cathartic call for unity, it hung suspended from that final word. It did not stir the blood; it chilled it. “That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,” Nina Simone would later marvel. “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.” For all these reasons, it was something entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but ‘Strange Fruit’ proved they could be art.
“People had to get their insides burned”
In her 23 years, Holiday had already seen plenty, although her notoriously unreliable autobiography ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ obscures as much as it reveals. Born in Philadelphia, she spent some time running errands in a Baltimore whorehouse, “just about the only place where black and white folks could meet in any natural way”, where she first discovered jazz. After she accused a neighbour of attempting to rape her, the ten-year-old Holiday, an incorrigible truant, was sent to a Catholic reform school until her mother secured her release. Moving with her mother to New York, she worked in another brothel, this time doing more than errands, and was jailed for solicitation. Upon her release she began singing in Harlem jazz clubs, where she caught the eye of producer John Hammond, who made her one of the Swing Era’s hottest stars. “When she was on stage in the spotlight she was absolutely regal,” jazz impresario Milt Gabler told Holiday’s biographer John Chilton. “It was something, the way she held her head up high, the way she phrased each word, and got to the heart of the story in a song, and to top it all, she knew where the beat was.”
Meeropol played Barney Josephson – the New Jersey shoe salesman who had come up with the idea for Café Society – his song and asked if he could bring it to Holiday. The singer later insisted she fell in love with it right away. “Some guy’s brought me a hell of a damn song that I’m going to do,” she claimed to have told bandleader Frankie Newton. Meeropol remembered it differently, believing that she performed it only as a favour to Josephson and Gordon: “To be perfectly frank, I don’t think she felt comfortable with the song.” Arthur Herzog, one of Holiday’s regular songwriters, claimed that arranger Danny Mendelsohn rewrote Meeropol’s tune, which he uncharitably dubbed “something or other alleged to be music”, which might have made the difference to Holiday.
Either way, Holiday road-tested the song at a party in Harlem and received what would become a familiar response: shocked silence followed by a roar of approval. Meeropol was there the night she debuted it at Café Society. “She gave a startling, most dramatic, and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” he marvelled. “This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it.”
Josephson, a natural showman, knew there was no point slipping ‘Strange Fruit’ into the body of the set and pretending that it was just another song.
He drew up some rules: first, Holiday would close all three of her nightly sets with it; second, the waiters would halt all service beforehand; third, the the whole room would be in darkness but for a sharp, bright spotlight on Holiday’s face; fourth, there would be no encore. “People had to remember ‘Strange Fruit’, get their insides burned by it,” he explained.
“Between the sweat and blood, I was a mess”
Holiday quit Café Society in August 1939, but she took ‘Strange Fruit’ with her and carried it like an unexploded bomb. In Washington DC a local newspaper wondered whether it might actually provoke a new wave of lynchings. At New York’s Birdland the promoter confiscated customers’ cigarettes, lest their firefly glow distract from the spotlight’s intensity. When some promoters ordered her not to sing it, Holiday added a clause to her contract guaranteeing her the option. Not that she always exercised that right. “I only do it for people who might understand and appreciate it,” she told radio DJ Daddy-O Daylie. “This is not a ‘June-Moon-Croon-Tune’.”
“By the latter half of the decade her body was wasted, her voice weathered down to a hoarse rasp, and ‘Strange Fruit’ was the only song that seemed to dignify her suffering”
‘Strange Fruit’ would haunt Holiday for the rest of her life. Some fans, including her former producer John Hammond, blamed it for robbing her of her lightness. Others pointed out that her burgeoning heroin habit did that job all by itself. So did the persistent racism that poisoned her life just as it poisoned the life of every black American. In 1944 a naval officer called her a nigger, and, her eyes hot with tears, she smashed a beer bottle against a table and lunged at him with the serrated glass. A little while later a friend spotted her wandering down 52nd Street and called out, “How are you doing, Lady Day?” Her reply was viciously blunt: “Well, you know, I’m still a nigger.” No wonder she clutched the song tightly to her breast, as a shield and a weapon, too. Jazz critic Rudi Blesh rubbished the song at first and only realised its real meaning years later. “Lynching, to Billie Holiday, meant all the cruelties, all the deaths, from the quick snap of the neck to the slow dying from all kinds of starvation.”
Holiday commenced her slow dying when she discovered heroin in the early 1940s, an addiction that eventually earned her a year-long prison term in 1947. Ten days after her release she performed a comeback show at New York’s Carnegie Hall. According to ‘Lady Sings the Blues’, she accidentally pierced her scalp with a hatpin and sang with blood trickling down her face. There could be only one contender for the closing number. “By the time I started on ‘Strange Fruit’,” she wrote, “between the sweat and blood, I was a mess.” Time called the performance “throat-tightening”.
During the 1950s she performed it less often and, when she did, it could be agonising to watch. Her relationship with it became almost masochistic. The worse her mood, the more likely she was to add it to the set, yet it pained her every time, especially when it prompted walkouts by racist audience members. By the latter half of the decade her body was wasted, her voice weathered down to a hoarse rasp, and ‘Strange Fruit’ was the only song that seemed to dignify her suffering, wrapping her own decline in a wider American tragedy. Writing about her final years, David Margolick says: “She had grown oddly, sadly suited to capture the full grotesqueness of the song. Now, she not only sang of bulging eyes and twisted mouths. She embodied them.” It was as if the song, having lived inside her for so long, had finally warped its host.
Holiday died in a New York hospital on 17th July 1959, five months after recording ‘Strange Fruit’ for the fourth and last time during a performance in London. After her death, the song fell from favour for a while. Nothing could have been more guaranteed to kill the mood on a civil rights march than this grim, assaulting piece of work. But unlike the freedom songs, it is not rooted to its place and time, and that’s precisely because Holiday was an artist rather than a campaigner. She was trouble, a misfit, and so was ‘Strange Fruit’.
When Holiday first began singing it, her mother asked, “Why are you sticking your neck out?”
“Because it might make things better,” Billie replied.
“But you’d be dead.”
“Yeah, but I’ll feel it. I’ll know it in my grave.”
Dorian Lynskey is the author of ‘33 Revolutions Per Minute’, published by Faber & Faber.
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.