Eleanor Fagan was the irrepressible jazz singer song-writer Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday stood astride the jazz fraternity with a pulsating yet troubled verve for almost thirty years. She died at the age of 44 and in that time she managed to create some of the most telling songs. These songs have gone onto become jazz standards. Summertime (1936) composed by the famed George Gershwin, Fine And Mellow (1939) written by Billie Holiday and God Bless The Child (1941) written by Holiday and Arthur Herzog.
She endeared with her smoky, effortless, yet slightly flawed vocal that was a perfect marriage to the jazz sound of the 30’s through to the 50’s. At a time when names like Duke Ellington were renowned, Philadelphian born Billie Holiday was an equal. As with many greats Billie Holiday had to face many demons. A traumatic childhood and a period as a prostitute possibly the foundation to her later vices. Drugs and alcohol were unfortunately a continuous feature in her life right up to her death. Despite this however her music remains the most powerful legacy.
To that effect in this instalment of #ITV we look at the powerful, emotive and (at the time) controversial Strange Fruit.
In many respects, as a woman of colour this seminal piece of social commentary would resonate with her. Released in 1939 at the height of racial tension it was a poem penned by a teacher called Abel Meeropol. It spoke directly about American racism and indeed the horrors of lynching. It was a shocking piece. While racism was rife it was the classic elephant in the room. People continued to be racist and those affected continued to try and survive within its iron and gory grip.
The catalyst for Abel to acknowledge the elephant in the room came about through the images of Thomas Shipp and Abram Mitchell. They had been brutally beaten, lynched and hung from a tree while a gleeful audience enjoyed the spectacle. Justification for such brutality against the two men came through spurious claims of criminal behaviour. Of course, while that individual incident was the foundation the poem spoke of an endemic problem. Abel Meeropol’s dark uncomfortable metaphor of the ‘Strange Fruit’ hanging while blood rolls down the trunk (viscous sap) burning indelibly onto the mind.
Billie Holiday’s rendition was eventually inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame and for good reason. Her mournful, yearning, pained interpretation adding an intensity that few other artists could have created. As a song, it was catalysts (of sorts) for the Civil Rights Movement (1954-1968). Billie Holiday as part of that catalyst bravely brought this heart wrenching yet short piece to live.
Today the song remains as relevant as it was all those years ago. While lynching on that scale has diminished, people have found other creative ways to murder because of; colour, inferior social standing, mental illness, gender and sexual orientation (the list is not exhaustive).
We still have a long way to go.
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