strange fruits    A writer who loves jazz once mentioned the song Strange Fruit to me and told me a little bit about it as we sat at the bar. When I got home, I sat at my computer, opened youtube and wrote Billie Holiday Strange Fruit.

Black and white images. A ray of light in the darkness and into that beam of light steps a black woman who rather than ageing seems to have been punished by life. Hollow black eyes that look nowhere. Junky eyes. She starts to sing.
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.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Strange Fruit is without doubt Billie Holiday’s most moving and best-known song. However, when she was first offered the song, she didn’t pay much attention to it at all. She sang it for the first time in New York’s famous Café Society (meeting point for the city’s communists, socialists and libertarians). Every time she sang it the audience were stunned to silence. According to biographers Billie didn’t understand the lyrics of the song. She was totally unable to comprehend the abstract in those days. It’s not hard to believe either, Holiday certainly had enough on her plate to have to worry about what she was singing about. Those around her quickly realized that Billie’s incomparable voice matched to that song were potent enough to stop both time and people’s heartbeats.

The song was composed by Russian immigrant of Jewish extract Abel Meeropol, a teacher. He saw the photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in a newspaper and he wrote the poem Bitter Fruit. It was published in the New York Teacher magazine. Music was later added to the poem and that was how the song Strange Fruit came about. Meerpol showed the song to somebody in Holiday’s circle, by then Holiday was singing in the Cafe Society, and this helper convinced her to sing this song she couldn’t understand. The song soon became the anthem for the civil rights and anti-racism movement. Holiday was not the first to sing the song. Meerepol’s wife was one of those to sing it before she did. But Billie Holiday’s voice brought listeners to the feet of those trees. In the concerts she gave in small cafes and big halls Strange Fruit was always the last song she performed. All the lights were dimmed and a simple spotlight shone on the stage. Billie would start the song with her eyes closed and as soon as she finished the song she would take a few steps backwards and she would turn those eyes of hers, that gazed down into a bottomless abyss, back to the darkness. The audience would leave the hall with a knot in their throats and the image of Strange Fruit burnt into their eyes.

Noting would be the same after Billie began performing this song. It would certainly leave a mark on her life. The Government soon began to take steps against her. It wasn’t difficult for them to press charges of drug abuse and prostitution against her. She had to flee Mobile, Alabama just for even trying to sing the song. But the song also showed the rest of the country what was happening in the southern states and she was supported by many people. From 1890 to 1939, more than 3,000 blacks were lynched, this is the “bitter crop” referred to at the very end of the song. Billie and the pimps who managed her were more than conscious of the strength of the song and tried to make it hers. Billie wanted no-one else to sing Strange Fruit. Once, when she had heard another singer sing “her” song, she went to the backstage dressing room and put a knife to the other singer’s throat. The lost look in Billie’s eyes...