Billie Holiday had a childhood as hard as anyone could imagine. Alongside the personal trauma was the constant assault of being black in a white supremacist society. And yet with an inner strength and a courage far beyond the capacity of most people to reach, she used her singing voice to not only survive her own sorrow, but to touch millions with the beauty of her singing. She could take the most simple and even silly song and transform it into pure art.
Most of the songs were about love— love found, love lost, love that never knocked on the door or love that rang the doorbell and no one was home. And since everyone had either been visited by love or their dreams of love, it was easy for them to relate to the lyrics and enjoy the melodies.
So in 1939, when Abel Meeropol, a Jewish English teacher in New York, gave her a song he wrote to sing, she hesitated. Abel had seen a photograph of a lynching and wrote his song Strange Fruit in response to it. It’s opening verse:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood on the root.
Black bodies swaying in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Lynching, that ongoing horror from American KKK terrorists, was not the kind of topic American audiences wanted to face. As Billie describes it:
“I was scared people would hate it. The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared. There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then one lone person began to clap nervously. Suddenly everyone was clapping. …I came off, went upstairs, changed into street clothes and when I came down, they were still applauding.”
Strange Fruit became one of her signature songs. Though most of her repertoire continued to be on the light side, her willingness to take that risk combined with her power to sing that song with the anguish and soulful feeling it demanded, showed that entertainment need not always be escape from hard issues. It could break harmful silences and open up needed discussions and point its finger directly at what needed work in our broken culture.
LISTENING SUGGESTION: Naturally, Strange Fruit. And then listen to one of her few original songs God Bless the Child.