Possibly one of the most poignant songs about the disgusting aberration called racism is the song made famous by Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit.
I have put a video of her singing it here, so watch and listen, and then I shall talk about it all a bit more.
This song – though to call it simply a song seems to be remarkably weak – was written by a New York Jew curiously enough, as a protest to the lynchings that were all too common in the southern states of the USA earlier in the 20th Century.
Abel Meeropol, who wrote this remarkable song as a poem in 1937, wrote it as a result of seeing the famous photo of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in the early 30’s, and then put his poem to music at the request of a number of his friends, and his wife gave it its first public performance in New York.
I have always found this to be one of the most obscene images I have ever seen…. Those two dead men hanging there, surrounded by a group of smiling and happy looking women, men and children. Seems to me to sum up the essence of racism, the dehumanizing of its victims. How else could those happy grinning people stand being in the presence of such a disgusting act?
In due time this song was introduced to Billie Holiday, who was deeply moved by the words, and its extremely sombre tune, and decided to include it in her stage act.. However she was very nervous about singing this song, as the situation it was all about (lynching, violent repression of Negroes and so on ) was still very prevalent, and she was understandably scared that she might be attacked for singing such an in your face song about the appalling things that were happening in the south of the USA.
But being not only an amazing singer, but also one hell of a brave woman, she continued to sing it in her act at a club called Cafe Society in New York.
Owing to the powerful nature of this song, the owner of the club insisted that it be sung as the last song of her set. The waiters would stop serving before the song began, Billie would stand on the stage only illuminated by one spot light on her face, the rest of the room being in darkness… Suitable ambiance for such a song I feel.
She had the same troubles getting the song recorded, all of the record companies were scared to record it fearing violent reactions from the southern states, and it took ages before she managed to find a way of getting it recorded and released – whereupon it was an immediate success, selling over a million copies!
Over the years many other singers have recorded this song, one of the better versions is that of Nina Simone, which I post below – but with the warning that it has some of the most dreadful and disgusting images that really show what this song is all about.
I have known and appreciated this song for many years, but it still never fails to move me enormously whenever I play it. Its imagery is so to the point and effective, the tune is so well matched to the words (tune written by the guy who wrote the words) – altogether one of the most moving and depressing songs I know in the world of Blues and Jazz, and one that cries out against the abominations that were (and to a degree, still are) inflicted on Negroes in the USA and the horrible and filthy thing called racism.
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