Thursday, February 27, 2014

Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit (1959)



Billie Holliday performing "Strange Fruit" in this 1959 video clip; the song is clear enough in its meaning, the strange fruit being the swinging dead bodies of black men hated for having the wrong skin colour, hated for being different, hated for being the Other. It applies equally to having the wrong religion, the wrong sexual orientation, the wrong nationality, the wrong ethnic origins, etc.

Holiday first sang the song in 1939; it was originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, a white high-school teacher from the Bronx borough of New York City and a member of the Communist Party. Wikipedia says:
In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings. He had seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.[7] He published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine.[9] Though Meeropol had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself and the piece gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.[10]
Here we are in 2014, more than 75 years later, with all our promises of human progress thrown in the dustbins of history, and what has remained? Many of the same old attitudes; many of the same old hatreds; many of the same old ideas. They have even been given the sanction of law. This reminds me of a quote from that great Russian master, Dostoevskythe keen observer of human nature and who could with one line sum up a thought that often takes most of us essays and books to say pretty much the same thing.
At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art.Then life will find its very existence from the arts.Fyodor Dostoevsky
Is life imitating art in this case, in a perversion of Dostoevsky's quote, chiefly the "art" of the many Hollywood action movies that depict guns as a viable made-in-America solution to many social arguments? And following the great writer's dictum, the U.S. will find its very existence, its very raison d'être in the "art" of violent solutions.

This is now the case, a thought so depressing, so terrifying and so bleak that few in America can face up to this fact, and it is very much a fact, that violence has become normative in the United States of America. That violence is for many the only viable and final solution to resolve any discussion, any debate, any opposing opinion or any alien view. Some might say this view is cynical and lacks hope; it does, chiefly because I do not see a rational reason to change my mind, as much as I would like to.

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Strange Fruit
by Abel Meeropol

Southern trees bear a 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.

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