Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” at the New York nightclub Cafe Society in 1939. The haunting ballad about the lynching of black men in the American South and the hypocrisy of Southern pastoralism soon became a signature piece for her. Holiday’s performance of the song helped stir racial rights consciousness during the long reign of Jim Crow discrimination prior to the Civil Rights era.
David Margolick, an editor with Vanity Fair, and formerly with the New York Times, uses first-person accounts and archival sources to chronicle the history of the song and Holiday’s association with it. He dispels myths about the song’s creation (it was written by Abel Meeropol, and was first performed in white Leftist circles before making the transition to Holiday and jazz), and presents varying reactions to Holiday’s use of it, from musicians, contemporary critics, academics, and others.
Variously promoted and censored on radio and in performance venues, the song caused its listeners to react with mixtures of horror, awed respect, or pseudo-sexual thrill. Holiday’s wrenching and superbly subtle rendition, with her impeccable phrasing, typically struck partying audiences in clubs into silence.
Margolick does not deal extensively with the politics of lynching or interpretations of the song’s lyrics. He does touch on white-black issues regarding racism within the music industry. He helps chart the behind-the-scenes role of progressive whites in promoting desegregation, as well as the courage of black artists in sustaining creative means of racial protest and expression. And he is sensitive to the ways the song’s themes of suffering and martyrdom were embodied in Holiday’s own identity. The book concludes with a discography listing Holiday recordings of “Strange Fruit” as well as renditions by other artists.
Margolick leaves no doubt as to the potential power of a single song to awaken awareness and subvert dominant political culture, and of the ability of art to speak to the soul.