“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root”. The opening lyrics to Strange Fruit cast a haunting legacy over America’s not too recent history, a history built on hatred and violence. This was America’s “Progressive era”, the period from around 1880 to 1920, an era of Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, and The Birth of a Nation.
The song is immortalised through Billie Holiday. Her version of the song, first recorded in 1939, was written in response to the horror of lynching, in particular, the photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in 1930. These pictures turned postcards of hanging black bodies, blooded and maimed, and the mobs that celebrated the spectacle of so-called “justice”, were commonplace. Strange Fruit has been ominously labelled as the first “protest song” the first milestone of the role music played in the Civil Rights Movement.
As Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Eretgun boldly claimed: the song was “a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement”. Indeed, its controversial take on a dark taboo turned a new chapter in America’s history, it saw music as a new weapon in the battle against racial aggression and segregation. Holiday, like her musical contemporaries faced discrimination wherever they performed.
Holiday’s version is iconic for her melancholic, contralto vocal style. There isn’t much range or pitch, but it makes her voice very appropriate for such a subject. Holiday noted that she wanted to use her voice as an instrument just like any section of a jazz composition. The delayed vocals in Strange Fruit resemble a gauche little girl waiting patiently till she begins to flourish and mature, for the vocals do not start until 1:10. The allusions to ageing and life are evident in the imagery of fruit, it grows, it ripens, then rots. But the lyrics convey a deeper message. The fruit lamented in this song, doesn’t ripen, it is, as the song concludes, the strange and bitter crop. Like the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the image is much to be desired by Holiday, a desire for truth, for the harsh reality of racial discrimination on the most extreme level. It should remain there, untouched as a reminder of this ugly history.
Almost 30 years after Billie Holiday’s version was released, the icon of female political singers, Nina Simone, released a version in 1965. The backdrop to Simone’s version was somewhat different, lynching had faded out, but the battle to end racial discrimination was far from over. America’s attention turned to Vietnam and anti-communism, but the Civil Rights Movement had gained a foothold. The year prior to Simone’s release saw the passing of the Civil Rights Act that guaranteed Black Americans the rights to vote and promised the end of segregation in the south. The empowered tone of Simone’s version to that of Lady Day’s is a notable contrast. Simone’s lamentation of the past is temporarily healed by the progression of civil rights.
The bitter poignancy of Strange Fruit still lingers on today. In the view of the late Simeon Wright, the cousin of the abducted Emmett Till, a 14-year-old, whose lynching in 1955 sparked national outrage, the “Strange Fruit is still out there just in a different form”. The images of the faces of black people shot by police replace those disturbing bodies who hung from poplar trees. Strange Fruit exposed racial taboo in the most emotive way possible. It took the worst act of racial violence and planted its seeds in America’s cultural consciousness, and from this grew America’s strange and bitter crop.