Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was born in Pennsylvania and raised in Maryland. She moved to New York as a teenager and made a name for herself as a jazz singer in Harlem nightclubs and theaters. In 1939, Billie Holiday released one of her most famous songs, “Strange Fruit.” It was a song condemning the practice of lynching.

Strange Fruit

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh, And 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 a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.”

 

The song moved the issues of racism and the tragedy of lynching “from the black newspapers into the white consciousness” (Margolick 92). Lynchings were common in the South for many years following the Civil War. The Tuskegee Institute estimated that between 1882 and 1950 3,486 blacks were lynched (Margolick 94). The song was released the same year as the film version of Gone With the Wind. The film epitomizes the “Pastoral scene of the gallant South” that Holiday despises. The following quote appears on the first title card of the film and it embodies the idealized past of the South:

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…”

 

The power of “Strange Fruit” comes from its striking imagery and juxtaposition. The black body of a lynched person is equated with a fruit dangling from a tree. Also, the striking images of the body are juxtaposed with peaceful serene images in the lines, “Pastoral scene of the gallant South” and “Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh.” Billie Holiday wrote that she would often have to vomit after singing this song during a performance, it was so moving for her. In the jazz tradition, she would almost always improvise and sing the song in a different way.

I chose to research Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit” because she used Harlem as a point from which to enact social change. She wanted to give the powerful white majority a glimpse into the painful history of the black identity, subverted by white culture.

 

Margolick, David. “Performance as a Force for Change: The Case of Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit”.” Cardazo               Studies in Law and Literature. 11.1 (1999): 91-109. Web. 26 Sep. 2011.