“Strange Fruit” Four Ways

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.”[1] 

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.”[2] 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?

[1] Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday,” (New York: Vintage, 1999), 183.

[2] Ibid, 185.

4 thoughts on ““Strange Fruit” Four Ways

  1. I think it’s a combination of the timeliness of Holiday’s recording and the fact that oftentimes, you just can’t improve upon the power of the original (be it a song, movie, etc.).

    Having released “Strange Fruit” in 1939, when lynching was still a fresh subject in the lives and minds of African Americans, Holiday’s performance does have that sense of urgency and reality that the covers made decades later may lack.

    Secondly, it’s relatively rare that we think that covers of classic songs (or sequels/remakes of great films) surpass the original. They may be good or interesting, sure, but it’s rare that the second or third incarnation affects you as powerfully as the first. I LOVE Nina Simone, but I agree–there’s just something about Holiday’s version that just leaves a huge pit in my stomach.

  2. I agree with Claire to a certain point, but I wonder if the reason the other performances seem to lose substance is the fact that more recent artists don’t have the ability to “make it their own.”

    When we do have covers surpassing the original, usually the original performer will acknowledge the fact. Think “I will Always Love You” transitioning from Dolly Parton to Whitney Houston (Sorry for the horribly embarrassing example. Lil’ Kim would be rolling in her grave turning in her cell rolling her eyes if she knew about this).

    But who could make “Strange Fruit” his or her own? White men singing the song? Forget about it. Even if India.Arie isn’t coming from the Jim Crow era. While the strange fruit is always going to be a metaphor, it won’t ever be as strong and as direct as it was for Billie Holiday.

  3. Thank you for including the video. I have heard “Strange Fruit” before, but watching Billie Holiday sing it made it that much more powerful. There is a look on her face while she sings that really gets to me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. It seems like sadness or maybe hopelessness, but there is definitely a look of pain. Just as Claire said, Holiday was familiar with the realities of Jim Crow and that personal connection to the subject of the song is what makes it so powerful.

  4. I think that the fact that “Strange Fruit” was written and composed by white men but made famous by a black blues woman is an aspect of its significance. The re-appropriation of this song from white to black seems strangely significant to me. Written by two white men the meaning and fame of the song is absent until it is almost, translated by Billie Holiday. She becomes the medium through which we as the audience understand the meaning of the song. I agree wholeheartedly with Davis when she states that to truly understand the Blues you must HEAR it.

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