|152541. Thu Mar 01, 2007 7:44 am
|Q: Who wrote Strange Fruit?
F: Billie Holiday.
A: A white, Jewish, communist, school teacher from New York City.
Strange Fruit is pretty well Holiday’s signature tune, but the widespread belief that she wrote it herself - having witnessed a lynching in her Southern childhood - is a persistent myth which she herself did a lot to start.
Sometimes described as “the beginning of the civil rights movement” and as the most politically effective work of art in history, the electrifying protest song had an immediate and lasting effect, and changed many lives. It was released in 1939 - but then, as today, it was only rarely played on the radio.
Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the name Lewis Allan, was the author of thousands of songs and poems. But even in his lifetime many people refused to believe that he could be the author, or at least the sole author, of SF. In fact, not only did he alone write the song, he didn't even write it specifically for Holiday, as she always claimed (when she admitted his existence at all).
Meeropol taught English at a high school in the Bronx. At the same time, he pursued his writing career, and he and his wife were secret members of the (actively anti-racist) Communist Party. As a writer, his fans included Thomas Mann, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill. But today, apart from SF, he’s remembered only for the Sinatra hit “The House I Live In” and the Peggy Lee song “Apples, Peaches and Cherries.”
Lynchings of black men in the South were still going on in the 1930s, though probably not as numerously as before, for offences including boasting or trying to buy a car. Meeropol’s poem about lynching first appeared in his union journal “The New York Teacher,” in 1937, and then in a CP magazine with the catchy title “The New Masses.” He then set it to music, and it became quite well known in leftist circles (the first person to perform it as a song was his wife.)
At a fundraiser for Spain, it was heard by a director from a nightclub called Cafe Society. This was perhaps where “alternative comedy” was invented: it was an avowedly leftwing nightspot, where there was “no girlie line, no smutty gags, no Uncle Tom comedy.” Very Ben Elton. The doormen wore rags, and “stood by as the customers opened the doors themselves.” The bartenders were all veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (which fought for the socialists against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War).The club called itself “a nightclub to take the stuffing out of stuffed shirts” and “the wrong place for the Right people.” Most radically of all - black people were welcomed as customers, and seated and served alongside whites. Indeed, blacks were “given the best tables, while anyone in evening clothes would be placed behind a pillar or almost in the kitchen.”
It was a regular hangout for all the left and CP affiliated stars of the day - Charlie Chaplin, Lauren Bacall, Paul Robeson and so on. (Holiday was playing there, having just quite Artie Shaw’s band because, as a Negro, she’d been banned from using the elevator at a NYC hotel named after Abraham Lincoln!)
Meeropol was invited to take the song along to the club and play it for Holiday. She wasn't impressed - it was so different from the jazz numbers she usually sang - but the counter-myth that she didn't know what the song was about seems to be just that; another myth clinging to this most myth-draped piece.
From the beginning, whenever she performed it (and she would only do so if she felt the crowd was hip enough for it), Holiday and her management demanded an almost church-like silence. Waiters stopped serving; there were no lights but a pin spot on the singer; she never bowed after the song, let alone did an encore. SF was always the end of her performance. Anyone who made a noise - or who looked as if they might - was removed by the bouncers. In one club, customers had their cigarettes confiscated before the song began. If she heard people whispering, or saw them getting up to go to the loo, Holiday would stop, tell them off, then start the song over again.
Most audiences didn't need telling, though: at a performance in Chicago, at the end of the song, instead of applauding, the whole audience stood in silence with their heads bowed. (Wouldn't that be great if you were there for your stag night, with all the lads from the office?)
The song, as sung by Holiday, became so famous that Cafe Society advertised it with a “Have you heard?” campaign. Her usual record company wouldn't touch the piece, however - Columbia had Southern customers to lose - so a small leftwing indie label took it on. (It was due to have another new song on the flipside, but the composer didn't turn up: just as well, since the song was a swing number called “Swing, Black Man, Swing.”)
(A link to Series D: it was apparently the success of this depressing song which led Columbia to release “Gloomy Sunday”!)
People became evangelistic about the disc, carrying it around with them, playing it to their friends, as if recruiting them to a cult. Meeropol had never got round to copywriting the song, since he couldn't imagine it having any commercial value; he only found out about the record by chance, though he did later get royalties.
The impact of the song - especially on Northern white youth and black intellectuals - was extraordinary and immediate. But not everyone approved; some critics mourned the death of pop music, as it began to take itself seriously; others felt Holiday the jazz singer was undermined by the “agitprop” song. Others simply felt it was a poor song with a dull tune which flourished only because of its politics. It’s PC gone mad! Many radicalised black people - including, for instance, Paul Robeson - disapproved of the song; instead of rallying people to fight oppression, it just showed blacks as helpless victims. And some feared it was a troublemaking song, which would stir things up again in the South. Most of America, however, never heard or heard of it.
Holiday was careful about where she sang it - leftwing, Jewish-owned, or black clubs, mostly; elsewhere it was physically unsafe to sing it. Even so, there were frequent angry walkouts by audience members who objected to the message (to many, lynching was a countryside tradition which ignorant, nanny-state townies had no business interfering with) or because they didn't want to be lectured to when they'd paid money for a good night out.
Persecution by the secret police forced the closure of the original Cafe Society in the early 50s, and most other clubs refused to allow Holiday to perform SF. She started insisting on her right to sing it as part of her contract. Some clubs managed to get round that, though: at one NYC show, the bartender rang the cash register throughout the song to ruin it.
To most of the “black elite” the song became “like a hymn” of civil rights. It was sacred; sung as a hymn would be sung, to respectful silence, at special occasions and for its quasi-religious significance. Holiday performed it at rallies, such as for a black Communist who was elected to New York City Council in 1943.
Some Southern singers who also took up the song did so specifically because they felt it wasn’t “real” when Holiday sung it - she’d grown up in the North; the nearest she’d ever got to a lynching, despite what she told reporters, was singing Meeropol’s song. Josh White was the best known of these. His championing of the song got him called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (as were several others connected with the song, including Meeropol); White defended his right to sing SF, but assured the inquisition that he always followed it up with a patriotic number and that he never sung it abroad.
Holiday sang it abroad, though; it went down very well at the Royal Albert Hall, but it was met with laughter in Holland, much to everyone's horror and puzzlement, and was politically unacceptable in France.
(Some argue that Holiday was “lynched” in plenty of non-rope ways, and that is what made her performance of SF so powerful, and perhaps why she apparently came to believe that she’d either co-written it or that it had been written for her; as late as 1944, for instance, she had a concert in St Louis cancelled after she was charged with “fraternising with a white man.”)
Holiday’s famous “autobiography”, “Lady Sings the Blues,” contained plenty of image-conscious fiction; she later said of it “Shit, man, I ain’t never read that book,” which seems unlikely - her publisher made her read and sign every single page.
In later years, Meeropol became a full time lyricist and composer; amongst his late works were a cantata based on the preamble to the United Nations Charter. Crazy, daddy-o! He and his wife adopted the children of US communists Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after they were executed. He died in 1986, suffering from Alzheimer’s. His son says he seemed to recognise SF even after he'd stopped recognising any humans.
Main source: “Strange fruit” by David Margolick (Payback Press, 2001).
(Sorry this is so long, everyone - but I promise you, I’ve cut it by half!)