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.
10 responses to “STRANGE FRUIT”
The song has lost none of its potency.
Do you feel the current protests, which feel seismic, will lead to actual change ?
I can’t believe this post about Billie Holiday. Yesterday I wore my Baltimore Billie Holiday T-shirt while taking a long walk. When I read your post just now, Strange Fruit was playing on Amazon music! Strange coincidences. That song is haunting, but then lots of her songs were.
Definitely : particularly in terms of her sadomasochistic relations / abuse. Violence towards the self and at the hands of others.
Strange Fruit is horrifying for what it condenses into one small piece, and also the fact that you can’t help enjoying it because musically / lyrically / poetically it works so perfectly.
A work of sad genius.
I wonder, too. Such a harrowing and horrible time in this world, suddenly suffused with so much raw power and devastating beauty…
“Rave on, John Donne, rave on, rave on”, Van Morrison sings. “Rave on” to you, too, Miss Holiday; help us to hear you clearly.
And “rave on”, too – to every other spirit and every soul who might hear YOUR heart, and help them to hear and feel the ravings of the many other blessed voices – of the poets and prophets and philosophers this moment has brought us nearer to. We are here now. And we are listening.
I am listening hard too.
So much time has passed since she released Strange Fruit and so little has truly changed. There have been great strides, but black me are still dying regularly and many people here in the states seem to be fine with that.
If she were still here, I wonder what she would have written to describe the situation at hand?
God, I just read the lyrics; it is perverse: “sweet and fresh … burning flesh”.
I listened to the recording you mentioned on YouTube, from the year in which World War II began: 1939.
And still 80 years on, in 2020, we are confronted with racism, with sexism, with homophobia. I truly despair at the stupidity of so many, many people: the planet at the tipping point in climate change; at a never-before seen point of polluting the oceans; in the middle of a great extinction of mammals, birds and insects; and still then, as if there weren’t enough to do to save the world, no, there they go and pour all their energy into making life difficult for minorities.
In Poland for instance, there is disgusting and vicious election campaign raging at the moment, vilifying LGBTIQ* as a new “pest”. A third of the state of Poland, voivodships, districts and municipalities have signs “proudly” proclaiming “LGBTI free zones”. This was the language used 80 years ago in my own country, Germany, when the unprecedented holocaust began.
Good god, what is it?
I know. I know!