Billie Holiday was born 100 years ago today, on the 7th April 1915. Her first recording session was in 1933, her last in 1959, the year of her death. The pre-eminent jazz singer of her day, she sold millions of records. But it was her most unlikely hit which she adopted as her signature song.
Billie Holiday’s vocal talents were special. Despite her lack of range (stretching across just a single octave), there was a depth and quality of phrasing that was both distinctive and, even in the young Holiday, conveyed a sense of a tough life lived hard. ‘I don’t feel like I’m singing, I feel like I’m playing the horn’, she commented.
There was more than this, though. Holiday had musical integrity and the determination to enforce it: ‘she knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn’t tell her what to do’, said Count Basie.
By 1939, Holiday had a recording contract and was singing at the newly-opened Café Society – American’s first racially integrated nightclub. Barney Josephson – the club owner – brought a song to Billie, suggesting she include it in her set. Holiday wasn’t so sure. Even in the liberal setting of Café Society she thought the song too challenging.
‘Strange Fruit’ had been written by Jewish teacher and activist Abel Meeropol (writing as Lewis Allan) in response to a photograph he’d seen of the lynching of two Black men. ‘Southern trees bear a strange fruit, / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,’ made for strong social commentary, but even the darkest of Blues songs avoided dealing with such subject matter so directly. It seemed an unlikely choice of song for a nightclub.
According to Holiday (who, we must bear in mind, is a notoriously unreliable narrator), the first time she sang it, ‘There wasn’t even a patter of applause … Then a lone person began to clap. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.’
Whatever the reality of that first performance, Holiday took the song as her own (even claiming later that she wrote it) and it was to be a staple of her set for the rest of her career.
She took it to Columbia Records, to whom she was contracted, suggesting she record it. Unsurprisingly, they declined, worried that its subject matter would alienate buyers in the lucrative jukebox market, particularly in the South.
As it happened, Holiday’s friend, Milt Gabler, had just founded Commodore Records. Together they approached Columbia to ask whether they could record the song on that label. Perhaps persuaded that Holiday would be unlikely to give of her best if not allowed her own way, they agreed. The song was recorded on 20th April 1939 and released that same summer.
A worthy song?
How important was ‘Strange Fruit’? Be Bop pioneer percussionist Max Roach sums it up:
‘When she recorded it, it was more than revolutionary… She made a statement that we all felt as black folks. No one was speaking out. She became one of the fighters, this beautiful lady who could sing and make you feel things. She became a voice of black people and they loved this woman.’
According to jazz writer Leonard Feather, the song was ‘the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.’
The problem with such comments is that they leave us with a distinct impression that ‘Strange Fruit’ is a ‘worthy’ song. And such sentiment rarely translates to popular success. By way of contrast, the protest songs of the later Civil Rights movement were much easier on the ear, more capable of being sung along to at a sit-in or on a march.
Departing from the norm
Arguably, a large part of the song’s success lies in the fact that it steps away from the norm. The atmospheric and unusually long introduction features an ethereally-muted trumpet, followed by a haunting, extended piano introduction. There is certainly melody here, but it’s the atmosphere, not the tune, that leads.
A lesser musician would have overplayed the vocals. But Holiday, as always resisting any tendency to slavishly follow the written notes, articulates rather than embellishes – remains slightly detached from, rather than immersively overcome by, emotion. This is musical narration, not heart-tugging sentimentality.
There is, too, a sense that the record, like the lives in the song, is cut short. The extended introduction (forced by the fact that, as written, the song was too short to record) takes a third of the available time. In consequence, there is no coda, no outro – it is the vocals themselves which end the record, accompanied by an incompletely resolved piano chord. If it reflects the matter of the song, it also invites us to consider what we will do about what we’ve heard: what comes next?
Historically, we know what came next: the burgeoning of a Civil Rights movement which, though yet incomplete, would eventually see the dismantling of state-sanctioned racism. And we know what happened to Holiday, too: stardom, alcohol and drug abuse and her death at just 44.
But that question (What comes next?) still hangs raw when we listen to the record. Not just because we know what happened between 1939 and the present, but because the song remains as effective a musical composition as the day it was first recorded.
‘[She] knew how she wanted to sound and you couldn’t tell her what to do’ said Count Basie. Backed by her Café Society musicians, on ‘Strange Fruit’ Billie Holiday showed just how big a shockwave she could create.
Find out more
Among the mass of material available in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, the following are particularly useful for information about Billie Holiday:
AR.8.01/DAV Davis, Angela Y. Blues legacies and black feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. 1999, Vintage Books. An engrossing analysis of three crucial Black women blues singers viewed through the lens of feminism.
AR.8.00/MAR Margolick, David. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an early cry for civil rights. 2000, Running Press. A readable, fascinating study of ‘Strange Fruit’ and Billie Holiday.
The Henry Watson Music Library (also at Manchester Central Library) includes material focusing on Holiday and her music, including:
784.0924 Holiday, Billie. Lady Sings the Blues. 1984, Penguin. Ghostwritten by William Duffy, this is the notoriously unreliable autobiography of Billie Holiday which, nevertheless, is essential reading for those interested in Holiday’s own perception of her life.
781.643092 Blackburn, Julia. With Billie. A compilation of material from more than 150 interviews with people who knew Holiday throughout her life focusing on her, rather than her singing.
There are several versions of ‘Strange Fruit’ recorded by Billie Holiday. The 1939 recording, which you can download here, was published on the Commodore label.
Post written by David Orman