I’m always a bit ashamed to admit that my memory is quite terrible. Whereas my siblings and friends all seem to remember the details of their childhood, I always have trouble recalling anything more than vague recollections. There are some memories that have stuck with me though, and one of those is the first time I heard Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” I don’t remember exactly how old I was (although I believe it must have been the late elementary or early middle school years) or where (I assume in school) or even why I listened to it (again, probably school related), but what I have never forgotten is the absolute feeling of horror as my young mind realized what Billie Holiday was singing about. To this day I have a hard time even listening to the song, and I always have that initial feeling when I do.
In Angela Y. Davis’s Blues Legacies and Black Feminism early female blues singers are championed as social activists. By singing “Strange Fruit” Billy Holiday expressed both “her own individual sensibility, including her hatred of racist-inspired brutality” and “the rage of a potential community resistance.”
Holiday’s incorporation of “Strange Fruit” into her nightly repertoire has to this day made the song synonymous with her. Although the song originated from poetry and lyrics written by a white man, and the recording of the song was orchestrated by white men, “Holiday translated an antiracist literary text into a dynamic musical work whose enduring meaning stemmed from the way she chose to render it as song.” Up until now I had only ever listened to the Holiday version, but after noticing modern versions of Son House’s “Death Letter” by The White Stripes and Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields” by The Beach Boys, I was intrigued to see if other artists have even attempted to update or cover “Strange Fruit.”
Nina Simone included a traditional version of the song on her 1965 album Pastel Blues, and contemporary artist India.Arie has performed the song live in tribute to Billie Holiday. Rapper Common uses lyrical clips of “Strange Fruit” in an unreleased song of the same title about current social struggles. But then there are many other varying interpretations such as that of British reggae band UB40 and the French duet AaRON (Artificial Animals Riding On Neverland).
Although I rarely read user comments on youtube there was quite a bit of debate regarding these last two versions. While a few comments expressed die-hard fans’ appreciation, many comments questioned the integrity and appropriateness of contemporary white men singing “Strange Fruit” in what can only be described as an upbeat or disconnected tone. Does the song lose something in translation, even if the lyrics stay the same and it is just in the notes? I don’t have the same feeling of horror (perhaps unfortunately it is only a different kind of horror) when I listen to the lyrics set to reggae. Even such powerful female singers such as Nina Simone and India.Arie do not stir me in the same way as Billie Holiday. Was it Holiday’s connection to the environment of Jim Crow and her own personal struggles with race and gender discrimination that provide the raw power of “Strange Fruit”? Does the song lose integrity and substance when performed by other artists? Why is Holiday considered an activist when she performed the song, but subsequent performers not?
 Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday,” (New York: Vintage, 1999), 183.
 Ibid, 185.