In March 1939, a then-23-year-old Billie Holiday closed out her set at New York's Cafe Society with a song she hadn't performed before: "Strange Fruit."
Written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, the song was a mournful dirge for Black victims of lynchings in the Jim Crow-era South, vividly likening their bodies to fruit "hanging from the poplar trees."
"The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth," she sang slowly and deliberately. "Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh / then the sudden smell of burning flesh."
At first, Holiday was worried about how it'd be received. "As she should have been – audiences out for an evening of fun suddenly found themselves confronted by a highly dramatic performance of a song that was by all accounts shocking and painful," says John Szwed, author of "Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth." "As time went by, she came to see the song as a test for her audiences."
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"Strange Fruit" is central to Lee Daniels' new drama "The United States vs. Billie Holiday" (now streaming on Hulu), which traces the FBI's efforts to silence Holiday (Andra Day) because of the song. For more than a decade, Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) targeted her with drug arrests and effectively barred her from the nightclub circuit after an 18-month prison term. She died of liver disease in 1959 at age 44.
"Jazz already had a reputation for being incendiary but then you have this incredible singer who is performing a song that makes people leave the club shaken, where people were either bursting into rapturous applause or into racist heckling," says arts and culture writer Aida Amoako. "The potential to be a powerful song that highlighted racial injustice was a potential recognized both by Holiday and the authorities, so whereas Holiday wanted to grow that potential, the FBI wanted to squash it."
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'Strange Fruit' was 'cathartic' for Holiday, 'radioactive' for others
Meeropol first published "Strange Fruit" as a poem titled "Bitter Fruit" in 1937, inspired in part by a harrowing photograph of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. His wife later set the poem to music, which was performed at union rallies and eventually Madison Square Garden by Black vocalist Laura Duncan. Robert Gordon, who directed Holiday's Cafe Society shows, was in the audience and brought the song to Holiday's attention.
"Strange Fruit" struck a chord with the singer, says music journalist J'na Jefferson. "A few years before recording the song, her father died after being denied medical care for a serious illness. It could have been prevented had he been white. So for her to sing about Black people being killed for being who they are adds another layer of personal context to the song as a whole. I’m sure it was incredibly cathartic in addition to being brave."
Weeks after she first played the song live, Holiday approached her label, Columbia Records, about recording it. Fearing a backlash, they declined, but she soon found a home for it at independent label Commodore Records.
"For mainstream institutions – record labels, radio stations – the song was too hot to touch," says David Margolick, author of "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Biography of a Song." "Beyond a group of left-wing progressives, largely white, most people wouldn't have known the song. The Black press barely mentioned it: It was too radioactive even for them."
It forces you ‘to stop and stand still’
It wasn't until the civil rights era that "Strange Fruit" became widely known, thanks in part to Nina Simone's stirring 1965 cover (sampled in Kanye West's "Blood on the Leaves" in 2013). The song was named "best song of the century" by Time magazine in 1999 and added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2002 for its cultural and historical significance.
Part of what makes "Strange Fruit" so haunting – and unlike any other protest song that's come before or after – is its relative stillness.
"Many of the other famous protest songs came later when the civil rights movement as we now know it was picking up steam," Amoako says. "Some of those songs have a pace and a momentum which helps you imagine the forward movement of progress, or there are great musical swells that invoke waves that can break down the walls of oppression. 'Strange Fruit' is solemn. Holiday lingers over words, so the images of blood on the leaves, of bodies swinging in the wind, also linger. 'Strange Fruit' says you have to stop and stand still before you turn and move in the right direction."
And the song continues to resonate today. "We may not be witnessing 'Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze,' but we have camera phones that prove that Black people are still dying for simply existing," Jefferson says. "We still have to march and protest in order to make a point that things are still unfair for people who look like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain and Nina Pop and Tony McDade. The issue remains the same and it’s unfortunate that this is still the reality of our country, but hopefully, with greater awareness of social and racial injustices, we can move toward a more tolerant future.
"I hope to one day live in a world where I can listen to 'Strange Fruit' and say, 'I’m glad this doesn’t keep happening.' "
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Billie Holiday's 'Strange Fruit': Why it's so controversial, cathartic