Our image of Billie Holiday is that of the elegant and melancholy jazz singer known for her haunting voice and immortal classics like "Lady Sings the Blues" and "My Man." But there was another song she performed that stood out in her repertoire: "Strange Fruit," a disturbing and impressionistic elegy to lynched black men in the South. Now, for the first time, New York Times
and Vanity Fair
contributor David Margolick uncovers the extraordinary history of this important American composition that few singers dare to perform to this day. For Margolick, "'Strange Fruit' defies easy musical categorization and has slipped between the cracks of academic study. It's too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz. Surely no song in American history has ever been guaranteed to silence an audience or to generate such discomfort."
Margolick reconstructs that discomfort when he details that fateful night in 1939 when Holiday first performed "Strange Fruit" at New York's Cafe Society. He also writes about the song's composer, Abel Meeropol (who later adopted the sons of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). For the author, "Strange Fruit" was a protest act on par with Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus years later, and he notes the influence the song has had on poets, singers, and writers as diverse as Maya Angelou, Cassandra Wilson, and Natalie Merchant. What David Margolick proves in this small but important book is that art can indeed move people in ways nothing else can. --Eugene Holley Jr.
From Publishers Weekly
In 1939, at Greenwich Village's Left-wing Caf? Society, Billie Holiday gave the first public performance of a song whose lyrics tender a gory vision of a lynched black man hanging from a tree. The song, "Strange Fruit," became one of Holiday's signature pieces, eliciting strong emotions in black and white audiences alike. Now Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has written a history of the song that Q, a British music publication, counted among the "ten songs that actually changed the world." Following "Strange Fruit" from its birth at the hand of Jewish schoolteacher and Communist Abel Meeropol through its occasional present-day revivals by a smattering of intrepid musicians, Margolick culls the opinions of music scholars on the influential ballad's cultural and musical impact and quotes critics from Holiday's era. He consults sources including black newspapers, radio stations, record sales and jukebox data to determine who actually heard "Strange Fruit" and how different groups reacted. Most effectively, by drawing on personal recollections of Holiday, Meeropol, Caf? Society promoter Barney Josephson and people who heard Holiday sing the song either live or on vinyl--plus a brief history of Southern lynchings--Margolick re-creates the tense web of bitterness, guilt, denial and anger that surrounded Holiday's charged performances of "Strange Fruit." With thorough research and the smooth writing of a journalist, Margolick has produced a superb piece of cultural history. Photos. Author tour. (Mar.)
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