April 7 marks the 100th birthday of American jazz singer Billie Holiday. Her life and early death at age 44 have been the inspiration for generations of singers, from Janis Joplin to Amy Winehouse. “Lady Day” (as nicknamed by frequent collaborator and close friend, saxophonist Lester Young) had a meteoric rise and a fast crash fueled by drugs and booze. She has become the very definition of both the glorious strong-willed diva and the tragic lonely chanteuse.
One hundred years later, Holiday is still the source of inspiration, examination, and countless remakes. However, forgotten in her legacy is the woman who risked her own safety and career, stood up to power brokers, and held a mirror to a racist nation with a recording that Time magazine called the “song of the century.”
Lady Day released 38 charting singles during her lifetime, but “Strange Fruit” is arguably the most enduring of her recordings. It also stands as one of the biggest acts of musical bravery in recorded history — alongside Bob Dylan’s “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” Neil Young’s “Ohio,” and Bob Marley’s “War.” Like these other singers, Holiday was an artist at the peak of her powers using her fame for change versus fortune. She believed in an artist’s duty to speak truth to power.
Billie Holiday was the first to sing “Strange Fruit” in 1939, and 76 years later, the song is a reminder of how far our nation has come and the distance that remains. Most importantly, though, “Strange Fruit” shows us music’s power to reflect our times and our most uncomfortable topics. Like the best of American blues, jazz, and folk music, the beauty in Billie Holiday’s seminal recording rests in its unflinching starkness — its willingness to lay bare a horror that most would prefer to keep hidden.
“Strange Fruit” is a song about black lynchings written by Abel Meeropol. The great singer Nina Simone (who covered it during the peak of the 1960s civil rights struggle), called it the “about the ugliest song I ever heard. ‘Ugly’ in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people…it really opens the wound completely when you think of a man hanging from a tree and to call him strange fruit.”
Meeropol was a white Jewish school teacher, poet, and social activist from New York who often wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. He wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem after being “haunted” by a photograph of a lynching. The 89-word piece was published in 1937 in the Marxist magazine The New Masses. Meeropol later set it to music and by 1939 it made its way to Billie Holiday who was singing at the Greenwich Village nightclub, Café Society. She soon made it the closing number of her live set.
Billie Holiday was a 23-year-old star on the rise in 1939. She had performed with the biggest bandleaders of the day: Duke Ellington, Chick Webb, Count Basie, and Artie Shaw, and had a string of hit singles. She was also signed to the biggest record label in the country, Columbia, who refused to let her record a song about lynching at a time when such subjects were avoided at all costs. Holiday insisted, so Columbia allowed her to record “Strange Fruit” for independent label Commodore.
It was recorded April 20, 1939 in a four-hour session, and sold more than a million copies. “Strange Fruit” easily became Holiday’s biggest — and most unlikely — hit.
The success was not without consequences. Writer Meeropol was hounded by the government, and Holiday was regularly harassed by racists in her audience. Nervous club promoters demanded her not to sing it. Holiday had her contracts revised to ensure she was able to perform it.
Holiday went on to record other hit records before her 1959 death, but none match the potency of “Strange Fruit.” It is our country’s first great protest song.
Like all great works of art, “Strange Fruit” has been reinterpreted many times over the years. The variety of singers who have tackled it is a testament to its legacy. Siouxsie and the Banshees covered in 1987 and Kanye West sampled Nina Simone’s version and used a lyric as his song title, “Blood on the Leaves” from his Yeezus album.
Most recently, former Eurythmic, Annie Lennox, included it in last year’s Nostalgia covers album.
Still, the only version that comes remotely close to Billie Holiday’s original is Nina Simone’s 1965 cover that “deals with America and the black and white problem.” For many born into the 1960s struggles, Simone’s version is considered defining.
Warning: video contains graphic images
The Song Remains the Same
We need Billie Holiday now more than ever. We need more “Strange Fruit” — more artists who believe in music’s power to stir the conscience and not just social media vanity. We need singers interested in using their voices to pull us closer to our hearts, instead of lulling us into an auto-tuned stupor. In an age of Treyvon Martin; Ferguson, Missouri; and Eric Garner; we need protest music sung by stars who understand that creating social change music — not music streaming services — is the true stuff of music history.
We need less vanity, less cameras pointed at ourselves. We need singers who realize that music can do more than build followers and create commercial soundtracks — it can bring the dark into the light.
On her birthday, let’s remember Billie Holiday not as a infamous addict nor a victim of her success. Holiday should live forever as a reminder of what is best about America, and the magical music it has given the world. It is the music of freedom and defiance. It is the music of comfort and change. It is the music of revolution and the soundtrack of protest.
Who will write the next “Strange Fruit"? More importantly, who will be brave enough to sing it?