Guest Writer birdantony Presents… Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday!
In 1939 Billie Holiday would perform on Sheridan Street in Greenwich Village, Manhattan at the Café Society, one of the few nightclubs that allowed the black people entering by the front door. She was 24 years old and already misunderstood by most, although her voice was already a cult (Sinatra declared his inspiration to the tone of her vocal): a broken voice, strongly evocative, proud and sore.
In that far 1939 Billie Holiday was also the right woman for a certain kind of lyrics: she had been abused as a child, she comes from the deep racist south. Of course she was also the right artist to perform at Cafe Society, which since the days of Prohibition is a true liberal island in a painful and distressing landscape obscured by clouds of hatred and war.
At theCafé Society tables you could run into Eleanor Roosevelt and Kurt Weill as well as in many egalitarian socialist sympathizers elsewhere unwanted or undesirable. Those were the days when senator McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover had started the witch hunt against figurative communist supporters.
So at the Café Society, among the outcasts and the persecuted, there is also Abel Meeropol, an innocuous professor of letters. He’s Jewish and with communist sympathies. He delights in also writing poems signed under the name Lewis Allen to avoid falling into the federal complaint and dossiers, due not to the content, but only for his political sympathies.
Meeropol, on the tables of the Café Society, wrote this poem, dramatic and chilling against the murders of blacks, inspired by photographs of lifeless bodies of A. Smith and T. Shipp, victims of a lynching in Indiana in 1930. They were hanging from a tree and burned alive.
Here’s the picture which inspired the lyricist…
Here’s the strange fruit. Billie Holiday is at first reluctant then puts these words in music and starts to sing them through her sensitive instinct. So as the executions were repeated at theCafé Society, she internalized their poetic meaning and she could no longer sing this song without crying. Columbia label record refused to release that song in one of Billie’s records.
Anyway for a woman who faced every day existence as a bet that was only a minor challenge and she recorded the song for the smaller Commodore label. Immortal masterpiece. In 1939 the prestigious Time graded ‘Strange fruit’ as a “silly song of musical propaganda” sixty years later, in 1999, the same magazine chose it as “the song of the century”. Times change and a song helped to change them.
Here’s a rare footage of billie singing this song…
Here are some links of, not just the original song, but of some mp3 covers of “Strange Fruit” (including Jeff Buckley, Robert Wyatt, Antony & The Johnsons, Tori Amos, The Twilight Singers, and Nina Simone)…and the lyrics of the song, the poem by abel meeropol aka lewis allen…
Southern trees bear 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,
The 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.
strange fruit covered by aaron (a french electro-pop duo)
strange fruit covered by antony & the johnsons
strange fruit covered by jeff buckley
strange fruit coverd by nina simone
strange fruit covered by robert wyatt
strange fruit covered by siouxie & the banshees
strange fruit covered by the twilight singers (greg dulli & mark lanegan)
strange fruit covered by tori amos
Thank you so much Alex! Great job on the English by the way! A THOUSAND TIMES better than mine! And like I said up top, birdantony’s got his own blog, even if you don’t speak Italian, check it out, some amazing music and who knows, a little babelfish and a little perusin’, you may just pick up some Italian!
Hope you enjoyed,
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