"That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard, 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."
- Nina Simone (1)
Suffering and art have an uneasy balance. While humanity often dreams of eliminating the horrors of war, death, disease and violence, it is hard to deny that those very things have inspired great works of art. The bombings of the city of Basque inspired Picasso's Guernica (2). Angels in America sprung from the AIDS crisis. And the lynchings in the American South inspired the protest song, Strange Fruit.
In 1871, in response to restoration, and the lost in the Civil War (3) "whites roamed the countryside, hunting and lynching Negros"(4). This started a legacy that lasted into the 1960's. An act of homegrown terrorism "[l]ynching a black man taught other black men to say in their places at the bottom of the economic ladder."(5) Criminals, murders where never punished and remained free to brutalize black Americans at will.
It was this violence that led Jewish academic Abel Meeropol to write the poem Bitter Fruit, which first ran in the union backed which first ran in the New York Teacher in 1937. When he latter it adapted Bitter Fruit to music, became Strange Fruit (6)(7). Writer Dorian Lynskey calls this name change "inspired" saying that it "It puts the listener in the shoes of a curious observer spying the hanging shapes from afar and moving closer towards a sickening realization"(8). The idyllic myth of sleepy plantations, sweet tea, and southern belles crumbles to reveal decay.
While she did not write and others have recorded it (including singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone), it is Billie Holiday who is forever linked with Strange Fruit:
'Strange Fruit' was a landmark recording but of a very different kind that was perceived at the time. It was one of first examples of a popular song becoming impossible to disentangle from a single, specific recording of it. (9)
This is with good reason; listen to the way she sings "pastoral scenes of the gallant south."(10) The way anger undercuts the sweetness of her voice. Much like the magnolias in the song, she lures you in for a closer look, and then makes your blood run cold.
Strange Fruit remains a beautiful, yet ugly testimony to the horrors that men do.
Strange Fruit live:
1. Lynskey, Dorian. 33 Revolutions Per Mintue: A History of Protest Songs From Billie Holiday to Green Day. Harper Collins, New York. 2011
2. Cohen, David. Hidden Tresures: What's So Controversial About Picasso's Gurnica? Slate Magazine: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_gist/2003/02/hidden_treasures.html 2003.
3. Watson, Bruce. Freedom Summer. Penguin Group, New York. 2010
5. Gilmore, Glenda Elizabeth. Defying Dixie. The Radical Roots of Civil Rights: 1919 - 1950. WW Norton & Company, New York. 2008
6. Thomson, Graeme. I Shot a Man In Reno: A History of Death By Murder, Suicide, Fire, Floor, Murder, Drugs, Disease and General Misadventure As Related in Popular Song. Continuum, New York. 2008
7. Lynskey, Dorian. 33 Revolutions Per Mintue
9. Nicholson, Stuart. Billie Holiday. Northeastern University Press, Boston. 1995
10. Meeropol, Abel. Strange Fruit.