William P. Gottlieb
Billie Holiday and Mister at Downbeat in New York City, ca. Feb. 1947. Courtesy Library of Congress.
“Strange Fruit” may have been written by the Jewish Communist Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen) as a poem, but ever since Billie Holiday sang the three brief stanzas to music in 1937, she’s owned it.
Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, said she always thought of her father when she sang “Strange Fruit.” He died at age thirty-nine after being denied medical treatment at a Texas “whites only” hospital. Because of that memory, Holiday was reluctant to perform the song, but did so anyway to tell people about the reality of life as a black man in America.
“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
The song was so poignant for Holiday that she laid down some rules when she sang it at her gigs: She would close the evening with the song; the waiters would stop service when she began; and the room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on her face. There would be no encore.
“Lady Day,” as Holiday was called by many at the time, began to work the song into her repertoire sixteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Jazz writer Leonard Feather referred to the song as “the first significant protest in words and music, the first significant cry against racism.”
The song’s lyrics were shocking to some members of Holiday’s mostly white audiences:
Southern trees bear 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
At times, her performance of the song was met with fierce pushback. Though many people knew that lynchings of African-Americans in the South were common, there was resistance to ending the practice among Southern whites. Racism, combined with a popular desire to limit federal power over local concerns,kept people in the North from making any successful moves to end lynchings in the South.
In the end, Billie Holiday’s insistence on performing “Strange Fruit” may have been responsible for her demise.
One of the primary attempts to silence her came from a man named Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and an extreme racist, even for the 1930s. As Johann Hari details in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger claimed that narcotics made black people forget their place in the fabric of American society, and that jazz musicians were dangerous in particular, creating “Satanic” music under the influence of marijuana.
Holiday, who throughout her career called public attention to the devastating impact of white supremacy, was also a drug user. She drew Anslinger’s notice, and he ordered Holiday to cease performing the song. Holiday refused, and Anslinger ramped up his efforts to silence her.
After one of Anslinger’s men was paid to track Holiday and frame her with buying and using heroin, she spent eighteen months in prison. Upon her release in 1948, the federal government refused to renew her cabaret performer’s license, mandatory for any performer playing or singing at any club or bar serving alcohol.
This utterly undermined her career. Although Holiday was able to perform multiple sold-out Carnegie Hall performances over the next several years, she could no longer travel the nightclub circuit.
Unable to perform regularly at the venues she loved, and to stop remembering a childhood that included being raped at age ten, and working in a brothel with her mother, Holiday eventually began using heroin again. When she checked into a New York hospital in 1959, her liver was failing and cancerous. She was emaciated, and her heart and lungs were compromised. Despite her condition, she didn’t want to stay there. “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them,” she presciently told friends and family.
Indeed, Anslinger’s men, sensing a macabre opportunity, showed up at her hospital bedside, handcuffed her to the bed, took mugshots, removed gifts that people had brought to the room—flowers, radio, record player, chocolates, magazines—and stationed two cops at the door.
Even so, as doctors began methadone treatment, Holiday began to improve, gaining some weight and improving slowly. But then Anslinger’s men prevented hospital staff from administering any further methadone. She succumbed to death within days.
The only surviving filmed version of Holiday performing the song is from the British cabaret television show, “Chelsea At Nine,” recorded February 25, 1959 and released in March of the same year, just a few months before she died. Her voice is strong and impressive; the raw emotion simply devastating.
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Brandon Weber has written for Upworthy, Liberals Unite, Big Think, and Good.Is magazine, mostly on economics, labor union history, and working people. He is author of Class War, USA: Dispatches from Workers’ Struggles in American History, from Haymarket Books. For more information, email Brandon.Weber@gmail.com.