Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit in the 21st Century

One Note of Defiance

If anything is blatantly obvious in the post-Katrina era, it is that the foul stench of racism still permeates American society. This spring showed that in spades as the Imus debacle was absurdly twisted into a frontal assault on hip-hop culture. In some ways, though, Imus was only a warning shot. This hot summer has also seen thousands of Katrina survivors denied their right to return. The Supreme Court decided “separate but equal” was an okay deal after all in our schools. And a spate of “southern justice” has poked its head out across the country that would make Bull Connor proud.

The message coming from Jena, Louisiana–that Blacks are expendable while white bigots get protection–has not been lost on the hard racists of this country. White supremacists have posted addresses and phone numbers belonging to family members of the Jena Six, calling for “justice.” The first week of classes at the University of Maryland were marred by someone hanging a noose similar to those in Jena in front of the Black cultural center. Several other campuses have reported an increase in race crimes. And this week, Black students at Borough of Manhattan Community College were beaten by a group of six white men outside of a bar in NYC while calling them “niggers” and shouting “this is what slavery feels like.” The initial reaction of the NYPD? Arrest the victim, Marquis Scott, a member of the BMCC basketball team.

Nooses and posse violence can’t help but conjure up images of Jim Crow lynch mobs, where whites were allowed to dole out their brutal form of summary justice without fear of repercussion–police would be a part of the mobs just as often as turn a blind eye. And, of course, the “strange fruit” left swinging from the trees would come to symbolize one of the darkest sides to American history.

Now seems as good a time as any to talk about this song. It is said that history goes in circles until it learns to correct itself. If so, then the memory of “Strange Fruit” continues to be important today.

It is truly amazing how heart-rending this song remains. Almost seventy years later it still sends chills up the spine and sticks hair on end. It’s author, a radical teacher from Harlem named Abel Meeropol, wrote the words for his union magazine in the mid-30s. After setting it to music it became a popular protest song around New York City. Yet of all the jazz musicians who would come to embrace the spirit of resistance in their music, none would do so quite as effectively as Billie Holiday in her version.

Hers is a sparse and haunting song. Its piano is limited to well-spaced chords and the occasional fluorish. Twice in the song a lone trumpet belts out a solo that is as mournful as it is defiant. Those two emotions, sadness and outrage, sway back and forth in a kind of forbidden dance throughout the song. As the trumpet clears the way for Holiday, her smoky voice conveys that same frustration. She is surprisingly calm as she recounts the lynching and burning of a southern Black man with vivid imagery:

Southern trees bare 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

Think about this: the equation of a man with fruit. It is a horrifying concept that a human may be so easily regarded as a thing to be picked and tossed around. As she sings, there is almost a tinge of sarcasm in Holiday’s voice. The south, long celebrated for its tobacco, its cotton and Georgia peaches, was now, according to Meeropol and Holiday, known for growing a much more sinister commodity. They’re not commodities, though, as Holiday states in the graphic second verse:

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

Brash honesty mixed with stirring instrumentation proved to be a powerful mix. “The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake,” she later said. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping and cheering.” Holiday herself admitted to breaking down in tears after performing “Strange Fruit.”

Lady Day’s performance expressed perfectly the absolute horror of living in a country under the shadow of Jim Crow. There was no question that the chord she struck with both Black and white “Strange Fruit” was not just a song bemoaning the sorrows of racism, though. It’s heart-felt and darkly poetic honesty was itself a protest. As the song ends, Holiday sings “this is a strange and bitter crop,” with the final word being on an uncharacteristically high, sustained note. In a way that final note was a bit of resistance against the degradation she so movingly sang about.

Holiday’s version soon crossed from being a mere protest song into the anthem of the anti-lynching movement in the 30s, and established Lady Day as the legend she is today. It was a tragedy that she died in 1959. The same movement that she helped inspire was starting to exert real power to break the chains of segregation.

That may be the real lesson of “Strange Fruit” today; that while the horrors of bigotry still loom over this country, it is indeed possible to resist. The nooses swinging in Jena have already been met with protests that dwarf the small town’s population. The noose at the University of Maryland was met with a speak out of thousands where speakers made direct connections back to Jena. Already several high profile leaders have called for a new Civil Rights movement. And despite the images of hip-hop as depraved thug music being fed to us, some of the most visibly conscious MCs of our time have taken a vocal stand against the injustice in Louisiana; Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Immortal Technique, Common, all have long lent their voices to growing chorus of discontent with modern Jim Crow. And Thursday’s release of Mychal Bell already shows the effect such a chorus can have.

It took nothing less than a movement to crush the strange and bitter crop. As the new seeds are planted today, we should all let Lady Day’s note of defiance ring in our heads until the chains are finally broken once and for all.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. judy corbin smith said on September 28th, 2007 at 1:50pm #

    I mention Strange Fruit on an Imus site today & lo! & Behold – the story appears here! Thanks Alex

  2. judy corbin smith said on September 28th, 2007 at 3:16pm #

    Alex, my mother was a singer who loved Billie Holliday. In 1957 when I was 15 & watching TV as those poor 9 kids at Little Rock just tried to go to school – I was horrified at those ugly white people who shouted & raised their fists. My mother played Billie’s ‘Strange Fruit’ so that I would know what Lynching etc. was all about. It was the most awful visual images that the song evoked. Thank-God, my mother was a good & righteous person. I can only hope, that I am righteous too.

  3. Ceri Cat said on October 1st, 2007 at 4:14am #

    I’ve never heard the song, and wish I didn’t know what lynching was, or had ever seen racism. But at the same time I can remember Billie Holiday’s voice and picture her singing those words quoted all too well.

    When will we all grow up and realise race is a false concept, to swallow our irrational pride and accept our relationship with one another with open arms. I’ve often mentioned to my friends a song from Australia’s years of music which is an inspiring piece which is called simply “I am Australian” which was first written and performed by the Seekers and had sufficient appeal that it has often been suggested to replace or mistaken for the Australian anthem. The chorus is nice and simple and in my personal favourite version sung by a youth choir and goes like this.

    “We are one, but we are many, and from all the lands on earth we come.
    We’ll share a dream and sing with one voice.
    I am! You are! We are Australian!”

    I regret more people don’t take this kind of message to heart, that regardless of where we’re from, we are one. It’s rare to see a white person be racist where I live in Australia, they’re too scared to express any opinion that could be claimed as racist, while the aborigines and other “minority” groups have free reign and are frequently racist towards those they perceive as white. There is no such thing as reverse racism, it’s just racism pure and simple, and nobody is innocent of it. I remember as a child being fed ridiculous dogma by people around me, thankfully my mother set me straight then and taught me to listen and form my own opinions, by the time I was in high school I only had one group I hated and that was anyone that treated others badly because they were different. I come from an ethnically diverse background with a Dutch grandmother who still has nightmares 60+ years later of waking up with a German pistol in her face, her second husband’s (my grandfather) father was a black south African, whose genetic traits while not strong in my generation were enough for my grandfather to be treated badly by one of my neighbours as a child, somehow I doubt that man expresses his opinion too loudly these days given the horde of “darkies” just around the corner (ten years ago those houses were filled with white trash, now it’s the half caste troublemakers).

    I look forward to the future with hope for a brighter tomorrow where maybe we’ll learn to get along, I’m not going to hold my breath in anticipation though.

    I found this article well worth reading Alex, I’m going to have to try to find this song, seems too important a part of musical history to ignore.

  4. GILL DEACON said on January 31st, 2008 at 2:18pm #

    I have recently did the GCSE English course and this was a poem we read. It was very moving and thought provoking. Good for Billie Holiday for having the guts to sing it to the American population.