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Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song Paperback – January 23, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

David Margolick is a contributor to Vanity Fair and the former National Legal Affairs Editor for the New York Times. A four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee, he is the author of Undue Influence and At the Bar. He lives in New York City.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 168 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (January 23, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060959568
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060959562
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #240,722 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

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 21 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
I was glad to see the announcement for this book, an essay on Billie Holiday's landmark song, "Strange Fruit." Margolick does a good job of describing the song's origins, its performance by Holiday and its initial reception by audiences and critics.
Unfortunately, there is little analysis of the song's impact on the African-American community or on American society in general. While the narrative is presented well, the commentary is often superficial: "Some African Americans...disliked the song because it portrayed blacks as victims. Others literally feared the song, thinking that far from enlightening people, it would stir up racial hatreds and actually lead to a new wave of lynchings." But which of the many views was dominant? Margolick provides some educated guesses but no real evidence. We see how the song affected particular individuals but not how it influenced the cause of civil rights.
Moreover, the purpose and scope of the book are never made clear. As a biographical essay, STRANGE FRUIT omits much of the context we would need to understand Holiday and her life. As a social commentary, it fails to marshal evidence in a cogent or convincing way. The author presents no critical evaluation of the song itself, and the book is ultimately more a tribute than anything else.
The unusual length of the book also makes it hard to categorize. It's more than a conventional essay yet less than a full-length biography. While the comments of those who knew Holiday are generally interesting, Margolick's attempts to synthesize the material -- to make sense of it all -- often seem forced, incomplete or even contradictory.
STRANGE FRUIT is strangely unsatisfying. Readers who want to understand the song's impact will be left wanting additional evidence and a more thoughtful commentary.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Franklin Johnson on November 7, 2011
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'Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song' does a great job of dispelling the myths about the song and pinpointing the truth about one of the most famous American songs of the 20th century. Not only that but it also does a great job at pin-pointing why the song still has a shroud of mystery about it, and how it impacted generations of African-Americans and whites.
It seems like a bit of light reading, but since the song is an important one, the book is a gem.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jon Bastian on April 22, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
If you've poked around enough online to know the real story of the writing of the song "Strange Fruit", and are more than a passing fan of Billie Holiday, then there's really nothing new here for you. This is a very slight volume, and about half way through I found myself annoyed that the author just seemed to be finding as many different ways as possible to give us variations on the themes -- "Billie was very emotionally drained by performing this song" and "Audiences frequently didn't know how to take it." Don't be fooled by the page length, either -- a good chunk of that at the back is padded by a discography of performers who have recorded the song. It's a useful reference but, again, nothing that you couldn't find by searching for the song on Amazon or any other music site. I was expecting more insight about the Café Society crowd, and more biography on the song's author, Abel Meeropol. Instead, it felt like "Lady Sings the Blues for Dummies" combined with a collection of quotes and anecdotes -- again, none of which added to what I already knew.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Jayne MacManus on June 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
There are few songs in the world that stop you in your tracks and render you speechless of mind and heart. Billie Holiday sang one of them. The combination of her signature smoky vocals and the stark lyrics of the song written by Abel Meeropol, a white Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx, proved to be spellbinding. Its emotional charge stirred activists and intellectuals and even popular notoriety. Margolick's biography of the song is a slim volume but full of interest, well-written and researched.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Douglas S. Lavine on August 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
This book is an elegant portrait of a song, the woman who sang it, and the man who wrote it. It is a poignant look at the interplay between them all.I am not a student of jazz, and yet I found this book to be fascinating. It is as much about civil rights and human dignity as it is about music. Margolick is an amazingly astute observer of events, and he has an uncanny ability to describe what he sees in beautiful, elegant prose. This book would make a wonderful gift to anyone interested in jazz; interested in the civil rights movement; interested in Billie Holiday; or just interested in a little known profile in courage. Read it and savor it!
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Abel Meeropol, white Jewish schoolteacher in New York City, after being so moved by an image of a lynching (speculated that the photo is the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion Indiana) wrote a poem about it. After being set to music, Meeropol's poem became the song ultimately known as Strange Fruit. The song was played for jazz singer, Billie Holiday, and she sung it for the first time in front of an audience in 1939. Billie said she was nervous at first and "...was scared people would hate it."

But from that point on, Strange Fruit and Billie Holiday became intertwined in jazz history. Sure, others sang it, others certainly tried, but no one could sing it like Billie Holiday:

"When Billie sings it, you feel as if you're at the foot of the tree." p.78

"Not only did you see the `fruit' evoked in all its graphic horror, but you saw in Billie Holiday the wife or sister or mother of one of the victims beneath the tree, almost prostrate with sorrow and fury..." p.76-77

"...and with every defeat she suffered, with every additional increment of abuse she endured or inflicted upon herself, the more personal the song came to seem. The confidence with which she'd first sung it gave way to pure pathos." p.89-90

According to Meeropol, who heard her sing the song, said: "She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation, which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywheres[sic]." p.30
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