This year many celebrated the centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth. Innumerable tributes, news stories and celebratory concerts were held in her well-deserved honor. The song that got the most attention was her unforgettable rendition of Strange Fruit. Ironically, the song’s outrage over lynching came at a time when police across the country were involved in the newest version of old-fashion lynching, police killings of men of color.
Unfortunately, few of the commemorative tributes told the real story of American’s most tortured lamentation. As Holiday repeatedly admitted, she threw up every time she sang the song.
On November 10, 1956, Holiday gave two sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall, singing some of her favorite songs, including “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “My Man.”
On stage, she was warmly celebrated by some of the generation’s jazz giants, including Kenny Burrell, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins. Also appearing on stage was Gilbert Millstein, The New York Times jazz critic, who read excerpts from her recently published autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues (written with William Duffy). The concert marked her triumphant New York comeback and is memorialized in a celebrated album, The Essential Billie Holiday: Carnegie Hall Concert Recorded Live.
Yet, for all its festivity, the concert could not conceal a deeper foreboding. Millstein warned in the album’s liner notes, it “was evident, even then, that Miss Holiday was ill.” He goes on to paint a grim picture: “I was shocked at her physical weakness. Her rehearsal had been desultory; her voice sounded tinny and trailed off; her body sagged tiredly.”
However, an inner spark drove her. “I will not forget the metamorphosis that night,” he added. “She was erect and beautiful; poised and smiling. And when the first section of narration was ended, she sang—with strength undiminished—with all of the art that was hers.” (Audra McDonald eloquently captured Holiday’s declining but resolute spirit in her 2014 Tony Award-winning one-woman show, Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.) Lady Day died of liver failure on July 17, 1959.
The 1956 concerts marked Holiday’s return to the Big Apple, following nearly a decade in which she was barred from performing in the city’s commercial clubs. It represented the capstone of her work with Norman Granz, a remarkable jazz entrepreneur who became her manager in 1952. In early 1954, Holiday undertook an acclaimed tour of Europe, playing sold out shows in Amsterdam, Basel, Brussels, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, the Hague, Hamburg, Manchester, Oslo, Paris, Stockholm and London’s Royal Albert Hall. Lady Day was the queen of American music.
A decade earlier, Holiday was just as hot. She went to the Crescent City to act as a singing maid in the 1947 film, New Orleans, directed by Arthur Lubin; her idol, Louis Armstrong, also performed in the movie. Back in the Big Apple in May 1947, she was busted for heroine possession; she claimed it was her boyfriend’s stash. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year and a day at a federal rehabilitation facility in Alderston, WV.
On March 27, 1948, 10 days after her release from prison, she performed her first Carnegie Hall concept, singing some 30 songs to a packed house. Because of her felony conviction, her license — her “cabaret card” –- to perform in city nightclubs was revoked. Nevertheless, in the late-1940s, Holiday regularly performed at the Ebony Club, located on Broadway between 52nd and 53rd Street, partially owned by John Levy, her manager and lover during the period.
Holiday is an iconic American singer, celebrated for the white gardenia she wore in her hair and her unforgettable rendition of Strange Fruit, an ode on the horrors of lynching. Based on a poem, “Bitter Fruit,” it opens:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body 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,
Then 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.
In 1999, Time magazine named Strange Fruit the “song of the century” and the Library of Congress put it in the National Recording Registry. Its full power can only be truly appreciated listening – and seeing – Holiday’s performance; check out YouTube.
Six decades ago, Strange Fruit confronted a very different moral order. According to legend, a man approached Holiday at a jazz club and handed her a poem, “Bitter Fruit.” Worked with pianist Sonny White, she adapted the poem into a song that was released in July 1939 and reached No. 16 on the music chart. Among those that denounced the song was Time, calling it a “prime piece of musical propaganda.”
The man who approached Holiday in the jazz club was Abel Meeropol, a Dewitt Clinton (Bronx) high school English teacher and member of the Communist Party. He wrote the poem in ’37 after seeing a photograph of two lynched men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith; he published it under the pseudo-name, “Lewis Allan.”
In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before the state’s Rapp-Coudert Committee investigating communism in city public schools. One of the issues it pressed him on was whether the party paid him to write the song. He vehemently denied the suggestion.
This was the era of the Alien Registration Act (Smith Act) that made it a crime to “knowingly or willfully advocate … overthrowing the Government of the United States or of any State by force or violence ….”
In 1953, following the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the Meeropols — Abel and Anne — adopted the Rosenbergs’ children, Robert and Michael, aged 6 and 10 years.
New York, then and now, is a big — yet remarkably small — city. People of very different lives often cross paths with one another, bringing diverse, discordant, sensibilities together resulting in unanticipated consequences.
A Black singer and a White communist teacher crossed paths one night in a jazz joint and something unexpected, unforgettable, took place. Strange Fruit is the result of unanticipated consequences with magical convergence. Its truth reverberates to this day.
David Rosen is the author of the forthcoming, Sex, Sin & Subversion: The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015). He can be reached at [email protected] Check out www.davidrosenwrites.com