Thursday, April 4, 2013

"Strange Fruit" - Billie Holiday

Today's post is another contribution from guest blogger Emily Sorensen in honor of Jazz Appreciation Month 2013. Please feel free to leave comments below. 

Strange Fruit is an iconic song made famous by Billie Holiday. First recorded in 1939, Billie's version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. In 1999 TIME magazine called it the, "song of the century."

The recording - even the performing - of this piece was an incredibly bold statement long before the mainstreaming of African-American civil rights was in full swing. The atrocities in the South and elsewhere were not talked about (a proverbial elephant in the room, if you will), let alone given the full, unvarnished spotlight by a prominent artist.

The lyrics of Strange Fruit are from a poem  written by Abel Meeropol, an English teacher at Dewitt Clinton (a public high school in New York), as well as a poet and social activist. The poem is titled Bitter Fruit and was published in 1937. Mr. Meeropol put this particular song to music himself (he would often ask others to put his poems to music). It gained certain success as a protest song in and around New York.

The simple melody is as haunting as the lyrics. It lies within a transparent -  almost non-existent - arrangement. The song begins with a disturbingly mournful instrumental introduction, only to lead to an even more disturbing metaphor of the southern lynching. It ends abruptly, without harmonic resolution.

The song has been recorded many times over the years. For example, Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller did an amazing and haunting instrumental cover of the song with Marcus conjuring the melody with his bass clarinet.

I was first introduced to this song as a college Senior when observing an English 1010 class. I no longer remember the point of the class discussion, but I will never forget when the professor handed out a copy of the poem and then played first a rap version of the song followed by Billie Holiday's seminal rendition. I remember tears trickling down my face and knowing my life would never be the same.

Being an avid student of the Civil War and of civil rights heroes - the likes of W.E.B. Dubois, Martin Luther King, Jr and others who advocated a non-violent approach to civil rights advocacy - I was deeply moved by Billie's ability to use melody and song to evoke a living metaphor from the lyrics.

That day Strange Fruit became one of my favorite works - not because I was necessarily uplifted by the message, but because it was delivered in a way that spoke to all who heard it, whether they were comfortable with the protest or not.

Have a listen for yourself  - and be assured you can never be the same again.

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