|Written for the Freedom Writers Contest, March, 2010, using the prompt ‘INSPIRATION’.Definition of Inspiration: “An agency, such as a person or work of art, that moves the intellect or emotions or prompts action or invention.” (Answers.com)
Southern trees bear a 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 magnolia sweet and fresh
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
“Strange Fruit” has been called the original protest song. It is deceptively simple and direct. The song depicts lynching in all of its brutality. The three short verses are all the more powerful for their understated and ironic language. The juxtaposition of the pastoral landscape with “The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth”, the smell of magnolias with that of burning flesh, the blossoms more typically associated with the Southern climate with the “strange fruit” produced by racial oppression — good ol’ boys by day; white robes, hoods and burning crosses by night.
The lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith In 1937 was photographed and appeared on a postcard that was seen by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx. This horrendous event took place in Marion, Indiana, August 7, 1930. Meerapol was haunted for days by Lawrence H. Beitler’s photograph of the incident, which sold by the thousands for fifty cents apiece. Strange Fruit was inspired by this horrific image and was published under the pseudonym, Lewis Allan.
Billie Holiday was performing at the club, Café Society, in New York City. After hearing her sing, Meeropol sent her “Strange Fruit”. Holiday had mixed feelings about performing the song. She presented it to her friend Milt Gabler whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. She sang the song a cappella, and it moved Gabler so much that he wept. In 1939, Gabler agreed to record and distribute the song.
Barney Josephson, owner of Café Society, recognized the impact of the song and insisted that Holiday close all her shows with it. Just as the song was about to begin, waiters would stop serving, the lights in the club would be turned off, and a single pin spotlight would illuminate Holiday on stage. During the musical introduction, Holiday would stand with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
Billie’s grandfather was one of 17 children of a black Virginia slave and a white Irish plantation owner. Her father, Clarence Holiday, while touring the Southwest as a guitar player with the Don Redman big band caught a heavy cold on March 1st, 1937. He had served in France during the last year of WWI and had his lungs severely damaged by mustard gas, making him susceptible to any respiratory ailment. He delayed seeking medical attention, knowing the prevailing racial attitudes in Texas, at the time. He died of pneumonia in the local Veterans’ Hospital. He was 37.
Holiday reflected, “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.”2
Lynching ideology was directly connected with denial of political and social equality. Benjamin Tillman, 84th Governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894 and later a United States Senator from 1895 to 1918 stated forthrightly:
We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will. We have never believed him to be the equal of the white man, and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.
Mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, between 1882 and 1968, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights. Over eighty-eight percent were African-Americans. Fewer than 1 percent of those arrested for lynching were ever convicted.
Abel Meerapol was all too familiar with the news reports describing the Holocaust that began in 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany. It is estimated that 11 million people were killed during the Holocaust. Six million of these were Jews. In addition to Jews, the Nazis targeted Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the disabled for persecution. The American Holocaust differed only in numbers and scope.
“Strange Fruit” undoubtedly contributed to the 1964 Civil Rights Act declaring discrimination based on race illegal. President Obama reinforced this position when he signed major civil rights legislation in October, 2009 entitled the Matthew Shepard & James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, named for Matthew Shepard, a gay Wyoming teenager who died after being kidnapped and severely beaten in October 1998, and James Byrd Jr., an African-American man dragged to death in Texas the same year.
“Strange Fruit” was counted among one of the “ten songs that actually changed the world” by Q, a British music publication, but “Most Provocative” or “Most Unsettling” might more accurately reflect the song’s artistic impact and true social standing. “Strange Fruit” is “a work of art, that has moved the intellect, emotions and has prompted action”. It, therefore, exemplifies Inspiration.
2 “Lady Sings the Blues” by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published by Harlem Moon, page 95.