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Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, And An Early Cry For Civil Rights Hardcover – April 6, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Running Press; First Edition edition (April 6, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0762406771
  • ISBN-13: 978-0762406777
  • Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #796,921 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Margolick is a long-time contributing editor at Vanity Fair. He has held similar posts at Newsweek and Portfolio. For fifteen years he was a legal affairs correspondent for the New York Times, for which, among many other assignments, he covered the trial of O.J. Simpson. "Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns" originated in a conversation he had more than forty years ago while a student at Loomis, a prep school in Connecticut, and involved extensive conversations with Burns's former students as well as a review of his remarkable wartime correspondence.
Margolick's prior books include "Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock," a study of the iconic photograph taken outside Little Rock Central High School during the desegregation crisis of 1957 (Yale University Press); "Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink" (Knopf); and "Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song." (Harper Collins). In addition, for Kindle Singles he has written "A Predator Priest." He is now working on a study of Sid Caesar and the seminal television comedy program "Your Show of Shows" for Nextbook/Schocken.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By taking a rest HALL OF FAME on May 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I came to this book from references made to the song in "Without Sanctuary". I also recall references in "The Debt", and "The Unsteady March".
The title of this review only reflects a need to absorb what I have read, and also to take a pause. This subject is so grim it almost defies imagining. Even the song "Strange Fruit" stops everything when it is sung, causes controversy to this day, and has only been attempted by a handful of singers in it's 60 year history.
Mr. Margolick imparts a great deal of information in what is a brief work. It cannot be complete, but it is outstanding for what he does shed light on. Ms. Holliday had a very complex and tragic life, but was certainly loved by virtually all who knew her. She died quite young and the causes are all there for the reader to measure.
There is always some bit of fascinating human irony that comes with a story such as this. The quote that follows is from the book.
"Khallil Abdul Muhammad, Louis Farrakhan's notoriously anti-Semitic disciple and maestro of the "Million Man March", has quoted it (the song) in his speeches assailing American racism-unaware, apparently, that the song was written by a white Jewish school-teacher from New York City".
I mean no offense to anyone by highlighting that quote. For me it is another example of the root causes of the racial problems we face. We fear what we don't know, and we often don't take the time to learn the truth, and prevent our fear.
A great book, should be a part of your Civil Rights library and all libraries for that matter.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful By A jazz enthusiast on March 29, 2000
Format: Hardcover
It's rare that a nonfiction book can move me to tears the way Strange Fruit has done. But the story is so compelling, and the tragedies it describes--both of Billie Holiday's life and of reaction to the horrific lynchings that were once commonplace in parts of America--are beautifully balanced by the hopefulness of the song's continued popularity. Indeed, it is a kind of miracle that the song exists at all. I found it fascinating to read about the world of Cafe Society, and to learn more about this period of American social history. I believe Strange Fruit is also an important book because of the subject it addresses--albeit in a stylish and entertaining way. Oprah should put this in her book club so it receives the wide audience it deserves. After all, it's not as if racism is a thing of the past in America.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 30, 2001
Format: Hardcover
This thought-provoking and well-researched book moves beyond the racism and anti-Semitism that have fueled myths, misconceptions, and inaccuracies about its subject for years. Unfortunately, we see many of those those inaccuracies lingering still in a number of popular forums. Do not be duped; read for yourself and learn the truth:
1) Lewis Allan is a PSEUDONYM for Abel Meeropol, a well-known and well-regarded high school English teacher and composer. He also wrote "The House I Live In" (music by Earl Robinson) which Frank Sinatra later made famous. Allan and Meeropol are THE SAME PERSON.
2) Meeropol and his wife LEGALLY adopted the Rosenberg children after their parents were executed and remained their legal guardians ever since. Both Rosenberg sons, Robert and Michael (who use the last name Meeropol) love and revere the Meeropols and consider them their parents.
3) The money to support the Rosenberg children was not raised by the Meeropols, but by a foundation, whose trustees included Shirley Graham Dubois, wife of civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois. The foundation existed PRIOR to the Meeropols' adoption of the children.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Ronald Cohen on March 26, 2000
Format: Hardcover
David Margolick, a well published writer and journalist, has gathered the threads of an amazing story in STRANGE FRUIT. He deftly weaves together a sort biography of Billie Holiday, that gifted and troubled singer, with the story of her most famous song, a disturbing reference to the lynching of African Americans in the early 20th Century South. While many others recorded STRANGE FRUIT (a handy discography is included at book's end), Billie's moving version has remained the standard. The author also goes into the story of Lewis Allan, aka Abel Meeropol, the song's author and political maverick. Margolick draws upon a wide array of documentary sources and interviews to capture the song's and singer's dynamics, including numerous quotes and also a smattering of photos. I was thoroughly informed and impressed, as will be all readers.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By slomamma on August 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
It may seem odd to devote an entire book to a single song, but if ever a song demanded such an exploration, itÕs Billie HolidayÕs recording of Strange Fruit. Almost everyone thinks itÕs brilliant, yet few people listen to it often. Holiday makes this depiction of a lynching so real that the song is physically painful to listen to. To this day, itÕs rarely played on jazz-formatted radio stations. ItÕs too disturbing. IÕve always wondered how Billie Holiday managed to get it recorded in 1939. Did radio stations play it? And where did she sing it? I simply could not imagine Lady Day, with a gardenia in her hair, singing such a horrifying song to people in a nightclub while they sipped martinis. And if she did, how did her audience react? The fascinating thing about this book is that it not only answered my questions, it also raised many issues I hadnÕt thought about. David Margolick has collected comments and anecdotes about Strange Fruit and HolidayÕs performance from a wide variety of sources Ð musicians who worked with her, people who saw her perform the song at different time in her life, and contemporary singers who have recorded the song or performed it. What they say raises a lot of interesting questions about the relationship between art and politics, as well as the relationship between an artist and her art. The most fascinating Ð and shocking Ð thing to me was the number of people who worked with Billie Holiday who insist that her performance was a fluke, that she did not understand what she was singing. She was an uneducated, not terribly intelligent woman, her "friends" say, and didnÕt even know the meaning of the songÕs words. To anyone who has ever heard the song, that suggestion seems insane.Read more ›
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