In 1939, Billie Holiday took a bold step – bold even for a black woman who rose from a troubled childhood in a segregated country to become one of the most celebrated singers of her time. In that year, disgusted with the racism she saw all around her, she recorded "Strange Fruit." The song's bluntly poignant descriptions of southern lynchings were shocking and eye-opening, and it became Holiday's deeply effective closing song for her live performances.
Billie Holiday (Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress)
In the years leading up to the song's birth, Holiday saw racism take her father's life and her own dignity. Her father died after he was denied treatment for an illness, simply because he was black. And Holiday herself dealt with racism regularly, even as her singing made her famous. When performing as the only black musician in Artie Shaw's band, she had to ride in freight elevators, not in passenger elevators with the rest of the band. She was denied service in bars and restaurants where the band ate. She had to enter and leave performing spaces through the kitchen. She was even heckled onstage with racist epithets.
When Holiday discovered the eerie, poetic song, written by Jewish schoolteacher Abel Meeropol, it must have resonated deeply. She recorded it and began singing it at all her live shows, ending each night with its quietly powerful tones. All bar service ended before the first notes of "Strange Fruit" played, and Holiday stood in a single spotlight, sang the song, and left without encores.
"Strange Fruit" became legend. Time magazine later named it the song of the century, and it inspired countless other artists, from Bob Dylan to novelist Lillian Smith to poet Seamus Heaney. It has been covered by Nina Simone, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Lou Rawls, and more than a dozen others. But it's Holiday's version, the first, the boldest and the most-timely, that stands above the others.
Written by Linnea Crowther