Song for Today
Recommended by Jacqueline Mézec (Honorary Secretary, Jersey Arts Centre Association)
STRANGE FRUIT by Billie Holiday
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”
In my twenties, I listened to Billie Holiday songs a lot – bitter-sweet ballads delivered in her gentle honeyed voice and unique phrasing. It is these qualities which make ‘Strange Fruit’ so powerful, the contrast between the expressive tones of her singing and dark beauty of the lyrics with the devastating subject matter of the lynching of African Americans – the contrast between the natural world of fruit and growth and life with the human misery and death inflicted on it by racism.
Originally a poem by the Jewish American writer, songwriter and teacher Abel Meeropol published in 1937, and first performed by Billie Holiday in 1939, the song has been called the start of the civil rights movement.
When Billie Holiday sang ‘Strange Fruit’ at the Café Society in Greenwich Village, the lights would be dimmed and the waiters and crowd would stop moving. She said that the song reminded her of how her father had died, denied medical treatment for a lung disorder due to racial prejudice, but that she had to keep singing it “because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”