Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," the story behind the BLM anthem
On Aug. 7, 1930, two black men were lynched in Marion, Indiana in a public display of racist hatred. Their bodies swing from the ghostly branch of a song.
The music was climbing up from their heels like a cramp of truth. Barney Josephson, the owner of the Café Society, had asked the waiters to stop serving drinks, and in the darkened room a single spotlight projected a strange light on the singer's black hair, a magnolia set in her hair, as the bodies of the two men swung from the ghostly branch of a song.
When Billie Holiday first performed Strange Fruit, the café was already on the verge of closing. It was March 1939, a cold night. Cigarettes were flashing like torches, but the breaths were frozen, even the smoke, when she began to sing:
"Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze"
Written in 1938 by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher, "Strange Fruit" was the story of a snapshot: the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two African American men from Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930.
They had been arrested for the alleged murder of a white laborer and the rape of his girlfriend. The crowd entered the jail to account for them, beat them and hung them from a tree to dispense justice. Photographer Lawrence Beitler took a picture of the two men hanging surrounded by the crowd, within days thousands of copies had been sold of the photograph.
The song, which Billie was to perform nine years later and would become the soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter protests, caused Billie countless problems, not because she directly attacked white supremacists, but because it was full of truth and pain, and managed to inoculate the listener with the horror of those deaths: the anger and screams of the people, the feet of the men hanging, the swaying of their bodies in the southern breeze, the smell of blood mixed with the perfume of magnolias.
"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 the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop"
It all started with Francis McIntosh. Actually, it didn't. It began when a Virginia farmer caught a thief on his plantation, imprisoned him, tried him himself, and hanged him from a tree in his home in the late 18th century. Half a century later, lynchings of blacks — though there were also mestizos, Mexicans, Native Americans, Jews, and some progressive whites — were perfectly legitimate as a cultural expression in the United States. McIntosh was taken from his cell in St. Louis, Missouri, tied to a tree outside the city, and burned alive. Mary Turner, eight months pregnant, was hung upside down from a tree, smeared with gasoline, had her baby extracted from her womb, and was shot while burning.
Some 4,400 Black people were lynched well into the 1950s, according to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Their deaths were the subject of much celebration: postcards were sold, buses were chartered where mobs of supremacist families came to watch the show with their picnics on their backs.
Billie Holiday was no stranger to horror. She had experienced the racism of the time and knew that this 'strange fruit' would cost her dearly, but her throat did not dry up. Many promoters wanted to ban the song from her jazz repertoire, even her own mother was distressed by the popularity of "Strange Fruit" and the terrible consequences it could have for her daughter.
"Why do you make yourself known in this way?" her mother asked.
"Because you can make things better," Billie said.
"But they'll kill you."
"Yes, but I can feel it. In my grave I will know."
In 1944 a military man called her the 'N' Word after listening to her sing the song. The artist grabbed a beer bottle, smashed it on the table and threw herself in to shut his mouth with the broken glass, as told by Dorian Lynskey in 33 Revolutions per minute: A History of Protest Songs.
She was also in prison:
"Singing that song didn't help me at all," Holiday complained in an interview in 1947. "I sang it at the Earle Theatre until they made me stop."
The day after that concert, the FBI narcotics department arrested the singer on charges that led to a year in jail. Coincidence?
Over the years, "Strange Fruit" appeared less and less in their repertoires. When Holiday died in 1959, there were still piles of dead bodies appearing as if they were foreign fruit, "black bodies swaying in the southern breeze."
More than half a century later, Billie Holiday must have felt it. From her grave, she heard the crowd singing during the BLM protests and knew perhaps something had changed. Music was and has always been the closest of all the arts to the cry and the spirit, to the truth.