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Nashville Scene Ripe for Discovery

Recent volume tells compelling story of tragic, historic jazz tune

By Michael Sims

MAY 15, 2000: 

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the trees and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees....

In 1939, when a courageous 24-year-old jazz singer named Billie Holiday first whispered the stark lyrics of "Strange Fruit" into a microphone at the Café Society nightclub, she made history. From its first performance, the song became a rallying cry for social change and ultimately became Holiday's signature work. Last year, Time magazine proclaimed "Strange Fruit" the "Best Song of the Century." It competed against other historically important nominees, including Bob Dylan's prophetic "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall."

David Margolick, a four-time Pulitzer nominee and author of two previous nonfiction books, is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where the article that inspired the book Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights first appeared. He has done a fine job with this little volume He consults radio playlists and black activist newspapers, interviews dozens of people who knew Holiday and the song's creator, and deciphers Holiday's own heavily fictionalized accounts. As a result, he paints a vivid portrait of the singer, the era, and the impact of a few lines of verse. "If 'We Shall Overcome' was the anthem of the civil rights movement," he writes, "then 'Strange Fruit' was its opening chord."

The book's publication was timed to coincide with anniversaries and other events. Billie Holiday was born in April 1915, and the original recording session of "Strange Fruit" took place in April 1939. In March, Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in the "Early Influence" category. And the "Witness" exhibition of lynching photos is still stirring controversy in New York City.

Despite, or perhaps because of, its historical importance, the song is surrounded by myths and misunderstandings. In 1999, a Virginia museum included "Strange Fruit" in its celebration of music by black composers. In truth, it was written by a white Jewish Communist. Apparently, Khalil Abdul Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan's rabidly anti-Semitic disciple, doesn't realize the song's origin, because he quotes it in speeches damning American racism.

Abel Meeropol, the man who wrote "Strange Fruit," was a high-school English teacher in the Bronx, a writer, and a lyricist and composer. Ira Gershwin admired his lyrics, and Thomas Mann wrote letters of recommendation for him. Under the pseudonym "Lewis Allen," the combined names of his two sons who died in infancy, Meeropol wrote hundreds of songs. But nowadays, except for "Strange Fruit," he is best remembered for adopting the orphaned sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the couple was executed in 1953.

Meeropol didn't originally copyright the song, because he thought it had no commercial potential; he learned it had been recorded only when a friend brought him the 78. Eventually, though, he was paid the standard royalty of the time, 2 cents per record--a penny for the lyrics, a penny for the music. "Strange Fruit" came out on the Commodore label because Holiday's usual recording company, Columbia, didn't have the nerve to stand behind such a deliberately provocative work. Sidney Bechet cut an instrumental version shortly after Holiday recorded her vocal, but Victor Records waited many years before releasing it. Commodore was simply more courageous.

The song drew accolades from the left-wing press and black activist publications, ultimately selling far more copies than anyone expected. Samuel Grafton, a columnist for the then-liberal New York Post, wrote of Holiday's battle cry: "It is as if a game of let's pretend had ended and a blues singer who had been hiding her true sorrow in a set of love ditties had lifted the curtain and told us what it was that made her cry."

Margolick's Strange Fruit is cultural history at its best. Clear, literate, at once passionate and objective, it is quite a performance. Even the 14 photographs gathered in the center of the book are excellent. Of course, there's Robin Carson's famous 1944 photo of Holiday--the sensitive, voluptuous lips, the tortured eyes, the signature gardenia over her ear. Other pictures range from the unbearably sad image of a 1935 lynching in Florida--the sort of picture you can't bear to look at, but can't look away from either--to a shot of Holiday admiringly watching a jam session that includes trumpeter Hot Lips Page and drummer Cozy Cole.

Many people who heard Holiday perform "Strange Fruit" over the years testified to the power of both the lyrics and Holiday's performance. She used it only to close shows. The MC at one San Francisco nightclub had to inform the patrons sternly that "Miss Holiday never sings anything, anything, after 'Strange Fruit.' " Eventually, Holiday sang it only when she thought the right crowd was still around. It demanded too much of her and the audience.

David Margolick quotes an actress named Billie Allen Henderson, who remembered hearing Billie Holiday sing "Strange Fruit" in 1952. Henderson was standing in a nightclub with her date. Holiday's delivery cut through everything else and left only the tragic reality that the song was about--the blind hatred that was helping to destroy the singer's own life and the lives of countless others.

"I was trying to be sophisticated," Henderson later recalled, "and all of a sudden something stabs me in the solar plexus and I was gasping for air. It was so deeply felt.... I could smell the burning flesh; I felt it.... Nobody stirred.... I thought, 'That's what art can do.' "

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