Mickey Z. -- World News Trust
May 20, 2018
Too bad they didn’t have Twitter in 1939 when Billie Holiday first performed #StrangeFruit.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
“Not many singers could claim to have ‘suffered for their art’ as Billie Holiday,” wrote journalist Don Atapattu. “Born Elinore Harris, Billie certainly knew torment.”
While growing up black in the Jim Crow South, Holiday was prostituted, left homeless, and endured suffocating poverty -- all before she turned 18 and began recording music.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) did not write “Strange Fruit.” The song began as a poem -- written in the 1930s by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. His name was Abel Meeropol. (He and his wife Anne later adopted Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the orphaned children of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.)
After viewing a photograph of an Aug. 7, 1930 lynching, Meeropol was moved to pen the words Holiday would later make her own. Under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan,” Meeropol set the poem to music and saw it first performed at a teachers’ union meeting. It just as easily could have vanished into obscurity after that… but fate intervened.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Barney Josephson -- the manager of Cafe Society, a popular, desegregated Greenwich Village nightclub -- heard “Strange Fruit.” He promptly arranged a meeting between Holiday and Meeropol. After some initial hesitation, Lady Day decided to record the song but her label refused. “People don't understand the kind of fight it takes to record what you want to record the way you want to record it,” Holiday later explained.
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Her persistence landed the song on a specialty label and Holiday began performing it regularly in live shows in 1939 -- introducing white audiences to powerful images of racism, inequality, and hate crimes. She and Josephson agreed upon some rules at Cafe Society: Holiday would always close by singing “Strange Fruit” in darkness, except for a spotlight on her face; all waiter service would stop in advance; and there would never be an encore.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
“‘Strange Fruit’ probably did more to put Billie on the map than anything she ever did,” wrote Michael Brooks in the booklet that accompanied the three-CD box: Billie Holiday - The Legacy. “ It was totally unlike any song written up to then, and it enraged those people it didn’t scare.” You know, #NotAllWhitePeople and all that.
Lawrence Beitler took the photo of the lynching of J. Thomas Shipp and Abram S. Smith that inspired the writing of “Strange Fruit.” The two dead men hung from a tree surrounded by a huge lynch mob of men, women, and children. Over the next ten days, Beitler sold thousands of copies of that photograph.
Today -- eight decades later -- with just a few clicks, we too can and do share graphic videos of black Americans being murdered. We can and do virtue signal show our public “outrage” with color-coded profile pictures and by carrying cardboard signs during marches. Many Americans would likely take a #StrangeFruit selfie, if given half the chance.
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
This is America. This was America. This will be America.
Mickey Z. is the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on the streets of New York City. To help him grow this project, CLICK HERE and make a donation right now. And please spread the word!
Billie Holiday said “This is America” 80 years ago with “Strange Fruit” by Mickey Z. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://worldnewstrust.com/billie-holiday-said-this-is-america-80-years-ago-with-strange-fruit-mickey-z.