Billie Holiday’s Contribution to the Civil Rights Movement
by Marie Baleo
Eleanor Fagan, best known as Billie Holiday, was one of the most prominent jazz vocalists of the 20th century. Among her most outstanding works is the song “Strange Fruit”, which took Billie Holiday from the realm of love songs and lighter entertainment to the status of symbol of political involvement in the civil rights movement. “Strange Fruit”, written and performed at the end of the 1930s, rose to fame in a context where the Civil Rights movement had yet to take off. It is only later on, in the 1960s, in the midst of the most active decade for the movement, that Billie Holiday’s song truly became an iconic piece used by leaders and activists of the cause.
“Strange Fruit” became a staple of anti-racist resistance in the United States, yet Billie Holiday is not usually considered a political figure or a protest singer in the traditional sense. This discrepancy raises many questions regarding the nature of Billie’s actual involvement and interest in the civil rights movement. Perhaps it is not Billie Holiday’s actual political contribution, but the need of every rising political movement of opposition for powerful cultural symbols of resistance that explains the importance of “Strange Fruit” for the Civil Rights movement.
From Marion, Indiana to the Bronx: the birth of a protest song
Despite what she claimed in her memoir “Lady Sings the Blues”, “Strange Fruit” was not written by Billie Holiday, but by Abel Meeropol (aka, Lewis Allan) in 1938. Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and communist activist from the Bronx, is better known for adopting the children of the late Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. He wrote what was first known as “Bitter Fruit” as a three-verse poem in reaction to a postcard that bore a photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two Black men lynched in Marion, Indiana in 1930.
Profoundly shocked by this image, Meeropol wrote the poem and subsequently provided a melody so that the poem could be sung in political contexts (rallies, meetings, …). The poem only achieved fame when Billie Holiday reclaimed it and refashioned it with her pianist Sonny White. The widespread belief that Billie wrote the song factors into her image as a civil rights activist and a politically involved figure. Since her authorship of “Strange Fruit” has been disproved, potential evidence of her actual involvement against racism will have to be found elsewhere, perhaps in her affection for the song and her heartfelt interpretation.
“Suddenly everybody was clapping”: Lady Day’s heartbreaking performance
Billie Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” at New York’s Café Society. Known as “the wrong place for the right people”, the Café Society was a meeting point for progressive minds, and one of the only integrated nightclubs in the city. Meeropol came to the Café and had the owner read the lyrics before asking him to have Billie sing it on stage. However, Billie did not take to “Strange Fruit” instantaneously. She initially had doubts about the song due to the contrast between the piece and her usual (apolitical, love-themed) songs. It remains unclear what her opinion on the song was. Clarke argues that “Lady was non-political; when she first looked at ‘Strange Fruit’ she didn’t know what to make of it”. Accounts report that she seemed uncommunicative and indifferent, and only reacted to ask the meaning of “pastoral”. The owner of Café Society, Josephson, maintained that she had no idea what the song was about when she first performed it. Meeropol gives a different version, arguing that from the onset she understood and adopted the song as her own. It has also been said that she understood the song but felt ill-at-ease interpreting it.
Nevertheless, she began to experiment with the piece, and Meeropol later said she interpreted it exactly in the way that he had imagined and meant it to be interpreted. She would go on to perform “Strange Fruit” all throughout her career and until her death in 1959, at the tragically young age of 44. However, the song could only be performed in well-chosen venues, due to what was then regarded as controversial content.
One of the reasons the song had such a potent, lasting influence on its audience was Billie’s unique way of performing it. She would close her shows with it, and the concert room would be dark except for a spotlight shining directly on her face. She would never return for a bow after the song was over and would simply walk off the stage, regardless of whether the crowd was requesting an encore. She would remain immobile, snapping her fingers from time to time, and would often cry as she was singing. Her interpretation became more poignant as she aged, as drug use and alcoholism took a growing toll on her.
Of the first performance of “Strange Fruit” at the Café Society, Billie Holiday wrote that “there wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everybody was clapping”. The song generally encountered positive feedback, and people started requesting it. The press gave favorable critique as well, mainly pertaining to her delivery of the song, as opposed to its cultural and political meaning. Café Society began to advertise the song itself. Billie took the song to other, somewhat less progressive, clubs in Harlem and Union Square, where the piece was received positively as well. However, her record company, Columbia Records, wouldn’t release it. The song was picked up by a smaller label, Commodore Records, and “Strange Fruit” was first recorded on April 20, 1939. By 1945, it had sold 50,000 copies, and in July 1939 it was number 16 on the charts. Some took to buying the record and traveling to other states where people were not aware of the lynchings, and the song thus created powerful reactions and helped raise awareness. “Strange Fruit” allowed Billie to make the cover of Time, which described the song as a “prime piece of musical propaganda for the NAACP”. Advocates of anti-lynching federal laws asked that the record be sent to Congress. All in all, Strange Fruit made Billie “the darling of left-wing intellectuals”.
A dangerous stand against an “open secret”
Despite those favorable responses, “Strange Fruit” also raised controversy and elicited violence. Even in the liberal atmosphere of the Café Society, Billie Holiday was afraid of performing the song, as it addressed racism in a very straightforward manner at a time when protest music was virtually non-existent. The track was not allowed on the radio, as it was “too sensitive to put on air; to this day even the most progressive disc jockeys play it only occasionally”. Although it was not banned officially, radios did not consider it appropriate for playing. It was easier to get clearance to play “Strange Fruit” on smaller and more independent radio stations. A lot of listeners requested the song so they could tape it. It was also easier to have the song played abroad, particularly in Europe, where it was met with positive responses, because it did not cause the same sense of guilt as it would in an American audience, with the notable exception of France, whose colonial debacle made “Strange Fruit” seem oddly relevant.
In the United States, criticism of the song was based on the fear that it would lead to renewed waves of racial violence or to a victimization of Blacks. Additionally, some people disliked the song merely because it was unlike the rest of Billie Holiday’s repertoire and had too much of a political agenda. Some also did not want to hear it when they were expecting entertainment in a nightclub, and would walk out after she performed the song, complaining about having to listen to such a heavy, dark piece when they had come to the nightclub to relax and be entertained. Finally, some considered it a marketing stunt on Billie’s part, instead of an actual political statement.
“Strange Fruit” only became a phenomenon in the elites and the educated spheres, and remained widely unknown among lower-class listeners, who preferred Glenn Miller. The song had a profound impact on white liberals in the North, but never made it to some regions of the US, where people sometimes had not heard of the lynchings going on in the South. Lynchings remained an “open secret” in the United States until the 1950s, well after “Strange Fruit” was first recorded. None of the staple events of the Civil Rights movement – the brutal murder of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks’ act of rebellion on the bus, or the emergence of Martin Luther King as a leader of the movement – had happened, and advocacy remained very dormant. According to Margolick, “Lynchings – during which blacks were murdered with unspeakable brutality, often in a carnival-like atmosphere and then, with the acquiescence if not the complicity of local authorities, hung from trees for all to see – were rampant in the South following the Civil War and for many years thereafter”. Between 1889 and 1940, about 3,800 people were lynched, mostly in the South. Lynchings later declined, with only 3 recorded in the year “Strange Fruit” came out.
“Strange Fruit” hoisted Billie Holiday to the status of Civil Rights advocate, even though the term is anachronistic, and even though she had probably not foreseen the profound impact the song would have on some parts of American society. Jazz writer Leonard Feather called it “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism” and producer Ahmet Ertegun “a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement”.
Despite the fact that Strange Fruit is now identified with her, Billie Holiday originally carried the image of an uneducated entertainment singer, unaware of the political stakes of her time, who loved to read comics and write light-hearted love songs. “Strange Fruit” helped her modify this image, although we cannot know whether she meant it to or not. Before “Strange Fruit,” Billie had liked to think of herself as “one of the boys”, saw her voice as a regular instrument and so thought of herself as one of the musicians, but “Strange Fruit” put her in the spotlight in a brand new way. Margolick describes this as “Holiday’s evolution from exuberant jazz singer to chanteuse of lovelorn pain and loneliness. Once Holiday added it to her repertoire, some of its sadness seemed to cling to her”. The public respected Billie’s courage in taking up the task of singing “Strange Fruit”.
The symbolic and political power of Holiday’s performance
What was the nature of Billie’s actual involvement in the civil rights cause? The cause was personal to her: she called herself a “race woman”, had suffered from discrimination, and had partly grown up in a “home for wayward Black children”. Her own father had died in a decrepit “Blacks-only” hospital in Dallas. Stardom had not allowed Billie to escape discrimination. When she toured with Artie Shaw’s band in the late 1930s, she was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as the white members of the band, and would have to eat in the band bus to avoid being seen inside a diner with the musicians. She quit Artie Shaw’s band after being forced to take the freight elevator in a hotel named after Abraham Lincoln…
“Strange Fruit” helped put the spotlight on lynchings in the South, when this had been unfeasible before. It had profound social repercussions, as one of the first songs to show the hate, horror and violence Blacks were subject to in a country that saw itself as a beacon of freedom in the world. “Strange Fruit” paved the way for other songs to tackle questions of social justice. Billie did not become an advocate but a symbol of the cause. She was not actively involved, but the intensity of what was seen as her one act of involvement, “Strange Fruit”, was such that she was instantly lifted to the status of icon of the anti-racist cause. Even though lynching practices had declined, the song was released at a time when Roosevelt refused to support the anti-lynching bill in Congress for fear of the consequences this would have on his popularity in Southern states. After World War II, clubs increasingly refused to let Billie perform “Strange Fruit” and some of her performances were met with more hostility. The song did not experience a particular rise in popularity during the two most active decades of the Civil Rights movement (1950s and 1960s). However, in recent years, Strange Fruit has been subject to a revived interest from artists, listeners, and anti-racism militants alike.
A cultural and political legacy
The power of the song explains its long and varied legacy. Many musicians have adapted the song, either live or in recordings, in the last few decades, ranging from Sting and the Cocteau Twins to Jeff Buckley and UB40. Closer to Billie’s era, Cassandra Wilson and Nina Simone also covered the song; Nina Simone sang it with anger but on rare occasions, because she thought the song was “too hard to do”. More recently, singer Tori Amos recounted feeling a strong connection to the song due to her grandfather being oppressed as a Cherokee living in a Southern state. Although she could never get herself to perform the song live, she got up one day at 5:30AM to record the song in her own home. “Strange Fruit” was also used in the biographical film “Lady Sings the Blues”, starring Diana Ross as Billie Holiday. However, the most poignant lines were cut out, as the producers felt that the audience was still unprepared for the hardness of the lyrics.
In terms of political legacy, the Boston Globe referenced the song in 1963 when “three young civil rights workers, later found murdered, disappeared in Mississippi. But for the young idealists of the civil rights era, the song was simply too depressing or too bitter or too redolent of black victimhood”. In 1977, “Strange Fruit” was used in a film and poetry show where it was used to symbolize the oppression of minorities in general, with the artwork focusing specifically on gender and sexuality-based discrimination. Finally, the song remains a staple of civil rights exhibitions and museums.
Some final words by Hilton Als, as quoted by Margolick: “Would Strange Fruit matter to us if Billie Holiday had not sung it at a particular time, in New York, and placed all those black bodies in our minds as a way of conveying something about herself, undoubtedly, this most impersonal of biographical artists?”
- Clarke, Donald. Billie Holiday – Wishing on the Moon. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2002.
- Margolick, David. Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry For Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2000.
- http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=105699329 (for covers of Strange Fruit by modern artists)