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The Civil Rights Anthem ‘Strange Fruit’ Is Never Easy to Hear

With the release of ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ it’s time to remember that one of America’s greatest protest songs is also one of its most painful. It’s as ugly and discomforting as the racist violence it depicts.

It should be obvious, but music ought to sound good. It’s a basic assumption we make as listeners: The song I’m about to hear will be pleasing to the ear. If it wasn’t, well, why did the artist record it in the first place? Sure, some music is meant to be so abrasive — say, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music — that you’re supposed to be scared away. But those are the exceptions. Music is made to evoke a feeling, to invite us into its world. We listen because it’s catchy and appealing. It possesses something we can’t get out of our system.

The history of protest music is littered with challenging songs that speak directly to the worst aspects of human nature. But whether it’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “A Change Is Gonna Come” or “Fast Car” or “Ooh LA LA,” there’s still something electric or just plain beautiful about these anthems that keep you listening — an indelible hook or a gorgeous voice or a fetching melody. But none of that applies to “Strange Fruit,” even though it’s associated with Billie Holiday, one of the 20th century’s greatest vocalists. It isn’t a song to cuddle up to — it’s designed to knock you back on your heels, leaving you a bit shaken. It’s not remotely catchy, and it shouldn’t work as music. 

Frankly, it’s hard to even categorize “Strange Fruit.” As historian David Nasaw once put it, “Neither jazz nor blues nor ballad but a protest song in the form of a dirge, ‘Strange Fruit’ occupies a category of one in American popular music.” In his book Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Biography of a Song, David Margolick notes, “Surely no song in American history has even been so guaranteed to silence an audience or to generate such discomfort.” It is perhaps the greatest and most important song that’s actively unpleasant to hear — and should be. There have been dozens of covers — some famous, some not — and very few of them capture the power of “Strange Fruit” because they often mistakenly try to bring beauty to a song that’s meant to be ugly and angry. Making “Strange Fruit” pretty destroys everything the song stands for.

“Strange Fruit” is at the center of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a new biopic that follows Holiday’s (Andra Day) downward spiral, as well as the government’s attempts to suppress her freedom of speech — specifically, they don’t want her singing that song about lynching, even though fans at her sold-out shows request it all the time. The movie doesn’t turn “Strange Fruit” into some rousing, Oscar-bait moment: For all its faults, director Lee Daniels never lets us forget how much the song is tied to America’s history of racism, and that pain courses through the two-hour-plus story. No doubt people who see The United States vs. Billie Holiday will want to seek out Holiday’s original, but the odds are they’ll listen to it once and then move on to something else. Who can withstand such anguish for longer than that?

“Strange Fruit” consists of three verses, no chorus. Lynching is never mentioned verbatim, but because it isn’t, the lyrics’ not-quite-concealed insinuation of the song’s theme feels almost conspiratorial, Holiday speaking in code to the listener about a societal ill they can both see clearly. All the things she’s not saying are what make “Strange Fruit” so affecting: 

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

The movie may create the impression that “Strange Fruit” wasn’t just one of Holiday’s signature songs but, in fact, a song she wrote. That credit, however, goes to Abel Meeropol, a Jewish man who grew up in the Bronx, obtained a master of arts at Harvard and eventually became a songwriter. The former high school English teacher had seen a photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two Black men who had been arrested on a charge of armed robbery, murder and rape in Marion, Indiana. But Shipp and Smith received no trial: Locals smashed their way into the jail, grabbed the two men and hung them. A third Black man, James Cameron, had also been arrested, but he narrowly escaped being lynched, telling NPR, “I looked over to the faces of the people as they were beating me along the way to the tree. I was pleading for some kind of mercy, looking for a kind face. But I could find none. They got me up to the tree and they got a rope and they put it around my neck. And they began to push me under the tree. And that’s when I prayed to God. I said, ‘Lord have mercy, forgive me my sins.’ I was ready to die.” 

Legend has it that someone in the crowd stopped Cameron from being hanged, insisting that he was innocent, but whatever caused the mob to spare his life, he avoided being part of Lawrence Beitler’s unforgettable photograph depicting Shipp and Smith’s lifeless bodies hanging from the tree. Beitler, a Marion resident who was (among other things) a wedding photographer, “didn’t even want to do it,” according to his daughter, but after being summoned to the frantic scene, he realized he had no choice: “[T]aking pictures was his business.” 

Like the song it would inspire, that August 7, 1930 photograph is too much to bear. Your eyes go first to the two dead men, but then eventually you see the white man in the foreground pointing, his expression not one of shock or sorrow but serene certainty in the rightness of what’s just occurred. The smiling white man on the far left is also chilling. It looks like a celebration is taking place — a moment of civic pride shared by an entire community. This wasn’t some shameful or secret event. It was merely one of the 3,446 lynchings of Black men and women that happened in this country between 1882 and 1968. 

Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem, entitled “Bitter Fruit,” and while there are differing stories about how exactly the song came to Holiday — it was actually Laura Duncan who sang “Strange Fruit” first — she gave the composition its boost when she started performing it in 1939. In her memoir Lady Sings the Blues — in which she embellished her authorship of “Strange Fruit” (among other things) — Holiday said the song “reminds me of how Pop died” and that she found the anthem painful, “[b]ut I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”

In April of that year, Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” with an eight-piece band. By this stage of her career, the singer (who had just turned 24) had enjoyed a slew of hit singles, performing standards like “Summertime” and “Pennies From Heaven.” Clearly, “Strange Fruit” was different — there was nothing romantic or dreamy about this song. Her own label, Columbia, refused to let her do the song, so she went to an upstart, Commodore, to put out “Strange Fruit.” When the song was released during the summer, New York Post writer Samuel Grafton summed up its impact: “It will, even after the 10th hearing, make you blink and hold onto your chair.”

There’s no give in her version of “Strange Fruit,” no moment of release. The piano offers a little beauty, but even so, beauty isn’t the song’s objective. Holiday’s once-in-a-lifetime voice enlivened every standard she chose. (Music critic Robert Christgau, who once noted, “Billie Holiday stands at or near the top of any knowledgeable short list of American singers,” declared, “Her magic is all in her languid timing, subtle melodic variations, unmatched conversational intimacy, and above all physical timbre — young and buttery or brandy on the rocks, it goes down so easy.”) And so what’s remarkable about her “Strange Fruit” is how she holds back her natural talent and charisma to deliver the lyrics so plainly, as if the words are just falling out of her mouth, with no attempt to transform them into a proper performance. There’s an intentional plainness to her delivery — the sorrow, anger and exhaustion are so palpable that there’s no room for showbiz professionalism. 

As The United States vs. Billie Holiday illustrates, Holiday was massively popular at the time, which means that white people loved her music. But the startling brusqueness of “Strange Fruit” almost feels like its own form of protest: I’m not here to entertain you right now. She was telling her audience to their face how they had failed Black Americans. As her one-time pianist Mal Waldron said, “It’s like rubbing people’s noses in their own shit.”

And yet, fans reacted wildly to the song. When she’d play “Strange Fruit” at the celebrated New York club Cafe Society, the proprietor Barney Josephson had a very strict routine for precisely when it would appear during her set — always as her closer. But that wasn’t his only stipulation: According to Margolick’s biography, “Before she began [the song], all service stopped. Waiters, cashiers, busboys were all immobilized. The room went completely dark, save for a pin spot on Holiday’s face. When she was finished and the lights went out, she was to walk off the stage, and no matter how thunderous the ovation, she was never to return for a bow.”

“Strange Fruit” hit the pop charts, and she had a few smashes afterward that returned Holiday to themes of romantic devotion and unrequited love. But Daniels’ film, which focuses on the 1940s, chronicles how drug addiction, unhappy relationships and an aggressive Federal Department of Narcotics started to undermine her career. (The government believed her to be an agitator, viewing “Strange Fruit” as propaganda meant to incite dissent.) Holiday died in the summer of 1959 at age 44, but even in the last year of her life, she kept singing “Strange Fruit.” 

Months before her death, Holiday still refrained from letting the song become merely melancholy or wistful. It never stopped hurting. And the man who wrote it never stopped being impressed by Holiday, who he saw perform “Strange Fruit” in concert. “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” Meeropol once said. “This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have.”

After she died, others took up the song — most notably Nina Simone, whose 1965 rendition of “Strange Fruit” is the only one that comes close to matching Holiday’s. “That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,” Simone once said. “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.” You feel the ugliness in her version, which was released the same year as Malcolm X’s assassination. She doesn’t want the listener to get comfortable in her cover, which is just her pained vocals and a lonely piano, which maps out the notes almost out of obligation. It’s a song Simone has to get through once, and then she’s done with it, throwing it at our feet and essentially saying, “Now you have to grapple with this.”

Meeropol died in 1986 — he was 83 years old — and although he wrote other songs, “Strange Fruit” is probably his most important. “It’s just an epic piece of music that was so far ahead of its time,” Bruce Springsteen said last year. “It still strikes a deep, deep, deep nerve in the conversation of today.” Indeed, the songs of social protest of the 1960s owe it a debt because of its poetic but blunt language. (As Rolling Stone’s David Browne points out, Bob Dylan’s song “Desolation Row” contains the line “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” a reference to the unconscionable practice of turning lynchings into photographic souvenirs.) Before there was a civil rights movement, Holiday sang its tune. “When she recorded it, it was more than revolutionary,” revered jazz drummer Max Roach said. “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.”

“Strange Fruit” is such a raw wound of a song that artists feel compelled to pay homage by covering it. That’s a noble impulse, but they tend to fail. Diana Ross, who played Holiday in the 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues, gives the song a patina of classiness, thereby rendering it nondescript. Siouxsie and the Banshees dress it up in goth drama. Tori Amos is too breathy and melodramatic. UB40 embarrass themselves with their reggae redo. The usually infallible Bettye LaVette makes it a little too cozy and jazzy. None of them come close to Holiday or Simone. They can’t get out of their own way to fully access the song’s uncompromising, unresolved starkness. 

But easily the most galvanizing version of “Strange Fruit” in recent years isn’t even a cover. For his acclaimed, adrenalized 2013 album Yeezus, Kanye West sampled Simone’s rendition for “Blood on the Leaves,” a bitter, paranoid song about fame and untrustworthy women. “In the first incarnation of the tracklist, ‘Blood on the Leaves’ was the intro to the album,” producer and collaborator Hudson Mohawke said at the time. “Nina Simone’s voice was going to be the first one you hear. But that was changed at the last minute, probably for the best.” Even so, hearing Simone’s voice intoning “Strange fruit hanging on the poplar trees” before she’s enmeshed in “Blood on the Leaves’” angry, taunting electronic dissonance was both shocking and bravura — not to mention potentially offensive. 

“I think Kanye had wanted to use that ‘Strange Fruit’ sample for a while,” Mohawke said, “but it was like, ‘How in the hell are you going to get that to fit?’ But it miraculously came together. Obviously, ‘Strange Fruit’ carries so much political weight, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is more about past relationships, but you can draw some parallels between the two. There’s not an overtly political message in the final lyrics, but in some ways that would’ve been too easy.”

Perhaps, but to graft Simone’s despair onto a petty tirade about an ex — despite its sonic brilliance — couldn’t help but feel crass, disrespectful and self-absorbed. Granted, West has long admired Simone, sampling her music frequently — and certainly elsewhere on Yeezus he raps pointedly about racism — but even years later, “Blood on the Leaves” has lost none of its uncomfortable power. But give West this: Almost alone among those who have tried to take on “Strange Fruit,” he managed to hook into the song’s festering animosity. Even if “Blood on the Leaves” is blasphemous, it nonetheless honors what’s unremittingly ugly and acidic about the anthem.

Andra Day, who’s a singer tackling her first lead role with The United States vs. Billie Holiday, embodies Holiday’s magnetic presence, and she’s certainly got the pipes to deliver “Strange Fruit.” (She actually recorded her own version back in 2017.) Her rendition of “Strange Fruit” as Holiday in the film is solid, even if it misses the original’s weary resentment. She filmed the scene where Holiday performs the song in public — fearful that she could be arrested — early in production, a proposition that left her terrified. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, why would they set me up like this?’” Day said recently. “It’s like they don’t want me to be successful, because this should be the last week. I think the nerves helped to affect me because I’m sure [Holiday] would have been nervous singing ‘Strange Fruit,’ knowing that all those police were back there.” 

Like every version of “Strange Fruit” that has come since Holiday’s, Day’s rendition is earnest, impassioned and respectful. No one does an “irreverent” cover of that song. (And if it exists, keep it to yourself.) But wanting to sign on to “Strange Fruit’s” disquieting majesty doesn’t mean you should try crafting your own interpretation. Frankly, even singing along to Holiday or Simone or Day seems inappropriate. Like the terrible occurrence the song memorializes, “Strange Fruit” can’t be fully comprehended. You simply have to be open to the terrible message it’s conveying — you’ve got to be humble enough to just be quiet and listen. “Strange Fruit” never sounds good. It’s not supposed to.