Yesterday, 7th of April, was the birthday of the great Billie Holiday.
Holiday was undoubtedly one of the greatest singers – in jazz or otherwise – of all time. There’s a few great posts which tell you about her troubled life, but for me, the most important thing is always the music.
With that in mind, here’s is the song with which she is most regularly associated – the seminal tune ‘Strange Fruit’. Written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol (originally using the pseudonym Lewis Allan) as a poem, then later set to music, the song is a direct response to the practise of ‘lynching’. That is, the hunting, murder & stringing-up of African-American people in the USA. Meeropol has since highlighted a photograph of one particular lynching, of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in the state of Indianna, as the main source of his disgust which prompted him to create the song.
Now, imagine yourself growing up & living in America at that time, as an Africa-American woman. This song is Billie Holiday’s song. Though it’s message is powerful enough to remain in our consciousness, I don’t believe there will ever be smother version of this time which carries as much emotional weight. You can feel every bitter word & syllable on Holiday’s delivery.
A picture might paint a thousand words, not to mention inspire them in verse, as in the case of this song. But some words, carefully chosen, masterfully set to music, and delivered by a performer who truly believes in the subject matter of their art, can sometimes deliver even more. Like good literature, the best music allows you to paint the pictures in your own mind. Thanks to Holiday, this song can be counted as a supreme example of this within popular song.
Happy belated birthday, and rest in peace, Billie Holiday (1915-1959).
For those of us who remain, please lend your ears to Holiday’s original recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ from 1939 by clicking on this link.
Enjoy, reflect, and never forget.