“Strange Fruit” is one of my favorite songs ever, even though it brings me to tears nearly every time I hear it. It’s been sung by everyone from Diana Ross—who played Billie Holiday in lady Sings the Blues—to Sting, Jill Scott, Jeff Buckley to Annie Lennox, Nina Simone; Common with John Legend; Katey Sagal.
It was written by American song-writer and poet Abel Meeropol—aka Lewis Allen—but the minute Billie Holiday sang it, first in 1937, it became her song:
Southern trees bear strange fruit Blood on the leaves and blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop Here is a strange and bitter crop
Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, thought of her father when she sang it; he died at thirty-nine after being denied medical treatment at a “whites only” hospital in Texas, and because of that memory, Billie sang it to remind people about the realities of life as a black man in America.
“It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
“Strange Fruit,” written and sung sixteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, is often called the first protest song, the “first significant cry against racism.”
And, the song may have actually lead to the death of Billie Holiday.
One of the men desperate to silence Billie, and keep her from performing “Strange Fruit”, was Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and a racist; Anslinger believed that drugs made black people forget their “place” in American society, and that jazz musicians created “Satanic” music under the influence of drugs.
Billie Holiday, who had begun using “Strange Fruit” to call attention to lynching, and systemic racism in this country, was also a drug user; that drew Anslinger’s notice, and he ordered Billie Holiday to stop singing it. She refused, and Anslinger ramped up his vendetta against her.
One of Anslinger’s men followed Billie Holiday and framed her with buying and using heroin; she was arrested and spent eighteen months in prison. After her release in 1948, the federal government refused to renew her cabaret performer’s license, required for any performer playing or singing at any club or bar serving alcohol.
And, unable to perform regularly, Billie Holiday began using heroin again. In 1959, she checked herself into a New York hospital, emaciated, her liver failing and cancerous, her heart and lungs compromised, from years of drug abuse. But Billie, perhaps remembering her father in that Texas hospital, didn’t want to stay there.
“They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them.”
And she may have been right; Anslinger’s men showed up at her hospital bed, handcuffed her to it, took gifts that family, friends and fans had brought, and took mugshots of her. Then they stationed two police officers at the door to make certain she didn’t leave.
The doctors tried to help Billie; they began methadone treatment, and she began to improve, even gaining some weight. But then Anslinger’s men prevented hospital staff from administering any further methadone treatments and Billie Holiday died a few days later.
She sang of white supremacy in America, of lynchings of Black Americans by racist whites, and her own life was taken in a lynching of another kind by another white racist.
Strange Fruit, indeed … now I have another reason to tear up when I hear the song.
It cost Billie Holiday her life.