Billie Holiday is usually associated with gardenias, the flowers she would wear in her hair when singing. But I can’t help associating her with magnolias. I first heard Strange Fruit – a raw and unflinching song, one of her signatures, when I was sixteen after borrowing a friend’s Billie Holiday tape. And though there were other songs I loved on it – in particular Don’t Explain, a melancholic melody I like to play on the piano; with its uncanny, harrowing poetry – a grimly sardonic and angry description of a southern lynching, Strange Fruit was always conspicuously different from her other work. It is a barely suppressed horror, set to a slow, sombre melody and gothic imagery evocative of Edgar Allen Poe ; one of the first ever political protest songs ever recorded.
I have just been down by the giant magnolia tree in the centre of a very overgrown and weed covered park, whose flowers are as wide as great lily pads, splayed open in the sun. Already past pristine. As always, I smell those flowers and think again of this song, contemplating the fact that though Holiday released this in 1939, more than eighty years have passed and her country, the world – is yet to remedy the racist ills and evil crimes that she was describing. We are still plagued to the core by diseases of various origins, literal; economic; social. At the roots. If given the chance, I wonder what song she would be singing now.