By Peg Bessette Knight
Senior Product Manager/Arts
With recent ProQuest blog posts on Black History Month in February, Women’s History Month in March, and a recent focus on women in the arts, it seems only fitting to turn the spotlight to the 100th anniversary of the birth of Billie Holiday, a black female artist, jazz legend, and inspiration to contemporary female vocalists (such as Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux and Lavey Smith), more than 50 years after her death.
Born on April 7th, 1915, Holiday’s is a story of struggle: enduring an attempted rape at age 10 or 11; prostitution (along with her mother) in a Harlem brothel by age 14; and developing a heroin addiction late in her short 44 years. But she grew to become a legendary vocalist whose voice still haunts, still resonates, still is considered one of the most expressive and influential female voices of her century.
Holiday’s early life involved confrontations with a side of human nature children should be spared. These experiences seem to have informed her interpretation of every song she put her voice to, particularly songs that take the perspective of the losing side of a love affair, such as the seemingly upbeat “All of Me.” The arrangement seems to belie the message, in which Holiday seems to literally give her body over, to resign herself to being overtaken, physically, metaphorically, and completely.
Take my lips
I want to lose them
Take my arms
I’ll never use them
Left me with eyes that cry
How can I
Go on dear without you
You took the part
That once was my heart
So why not take
All of me?
Performing songs by Gershwin, Porter, Johnny Mercer, Berlin, and Ellington, and accompanied by many of the most outstanding musicians of her day (Lester Young, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Teddy Wilson, Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan, Artie Shaw, Oscar Peterson, and more), Holiday also managed to record one of the most improbable and haunting songs in the American songbook: “Strange Fruit.”
“Strange Fruit” somehow exists against all odds, and has become a disturbing but important record of one of 19th and 20th-century America’s most unforgivable chapters: when thousands of blacks were lynched in America’s south. It’s unfathomable that these atrocities could be going on in mid-twentieth century America in front of mobs of supporters and onlookers; unfathomable that a white Jewish communist named Abel Meeropol wrote this graphic anti-lynching poem with one of the most vivid and difficult metaphors one can imagine, and that it would later be set to music; and unfathomable - from a 21st century perspective - that there were still lynchings taking place at the time that Holiday courageously performed “Strange Fruit” in Harlem. In fact, according to The New York Times’ "Map of 73 Years of Lynchings," these would go on for at least another 11 years after Holiday first sang the song in Greenwich Village.
Holiday’s interpretation of “Strange Fruit” was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. This exceptional song was one her primary label, Columbia, would not record at the time, fearing backlash from record retailers. Holiday instead recorded the song with Commodore Records, “a small, left-wing operation based out of Milt Gabler’s record shop on West Fifty-Second Street” (Lynskey).
It was a song that was performed at the Village's Café Society under strict conditions: waiters would stop serving in advance of the performance. Holiday would always close with it, and during the performance there would only be one source of light in the room: a spotlight on Holiday’s face. After, the room would fall into complete darkness and when the lights came back up, Holiday would be gone. No encore. This exceptional song would, in 1999, be named Time magazine’s “Song of the century.”
Meeropol wrote "Strange Fruit" after seeing a photograph of a southern lynching that he just couldn’t put out of his mind, and - due to a perfect combination of voice and heart, soul and words - we’re all unable to forget:
Southern trees bear a 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 magnolia sweet and fresh
Then 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 the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Fittingly, "Strange Fruit" is the first song chronicled in Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. According to Lynskey it marks the first time a song with “an explicit political message” entered “into the arena of entertainment." Prior protest songs took their place at rallies, political meetings, and had specific functions within these frameworks. Where these kinds of protest songs “functioned as propaganda,” says Lynskey, “ 'Strange Fruit' proved they could be art.”
Learn more about Billie Holiday, her fellow performers, and the composers of the music she performed in ProQuest’s Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, International Index to Music Periodicals, and International Index to Performing Arts, including critical reviews of nightclub performances including the song “Strange Fruit,” her obituaries, and information on the countless artists she performed with and influenced.
[Image above and on home page from: Bronson, F. (1998). Mor MOR. Billboard, 110(16), 47-47, 53+.]
[Lyrics from "All of Me" from: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/billieholiday/allofme.html -- Copyright 1931, Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons, co-writers]
[Lyrics from "Strange Fruit" from: Meeropol, A. (2001, Apr 02). Strange Fruit. The Scotsman]