Chilling. Haunting. Disturbing. Those are the words often used to describe Billie Holiday’s powerful, yet eerie, rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Written and arranged by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher, “Strange Fruit” poignantly examines American racism. In particular, Holiday’s live performance of the song offers a scathing analysis of the treatment of African Americans, drawing upon rich artistic expression to attack the consciousness of the American people.
Holiday’s first performance of the song took place in the early 1940s at the Café Society, a nightclub located in Greenwich Village. Her soulful rendition left the club’s audience in a stunned silence. It was after that first performance that the club’s manager set up some ground rules for “Strange Fruit.”  As the piece would begin, the house lights would dim, with only a single stream of light illuminating Holiday’s face. The wait staff would cease serving for the duration of the piece. And “Strange Fruit” would be the last song of the night, with no encore.
Southern trees bear strange fruit/Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck/For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck/For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop/Here is a strange and bitter crop.
It is clear that these guidelines had a direct influence on the performance, setting the stage for such a difficult and disturbing song. The lyrics paint a peaceful scene that is disrupted by a violent and sinister fruit dangling from the trees. The words are difficult and dark, especially as the metaphor for lynching becomes clear. However, when coupled with Holiday’s performance, the song evokes a deeper response.
She stands still. The simple minor tone of the piano offers the only accompaniment. Her almost vacant stare remains forward and downward, suggesting a sense of sorrow and terror at the strange fruit being harvested. The limited movements emphasis the severity and gravity of the song’s subject matter, keeping the audience focused on the gruesome lyrics.
Holiday’s facial expressions are also very much a part of the performance. She uses dramatic and exaggerated expressions to fully depict the horror and disturbing nature of the scene being described. Similarly, she evokes an unnerving, and almost harsh, vocalization. Using these deep and almost abrasive inflections, phrases such as “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” and “bulging eyes” reflect the anguish and sorrow of the subject matter.
It is interesting to compare the live footage performance of Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” with that of her other vocal recordings. For example, in many of the recordings, Holiday is accompanied by additional instrumental pieces. Furthermore, they often lack the dramatic and strong vocalization of the live performance. While these vocal recordings most certainly evoke a sorrowful feeling, they seem to lack the sense of agony and injustice that the live performance creates. The recordings’ vocals have an almost pretty quality to them, as they are not as jarring as the live performance.
Regardless of whether it is the live performance or vocal recordings, the lyrics have a power in of themselves. Perhaps one of the first protest songs, “Strange Fruit” weaves together stories of race, political ideology, and art. The song was quickly adopted as the anthem for the anti-lynching movement.
“Strange Fruit” was one of the first songs to use artistic expression and performance coupled with a protest agenda to confront the conscience of a country. David Margolick, author of Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, describes it: “It is too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz. Surely no song in American history has ever been so guaranteed to silence an audience or to generate such discomfort.”  And it did. It silenced an audience and challenged a nation.
 Pellegrinelli, Lara, “Evolution of a Song: ‘Strange Fruit,’” NPR, June 22, 2009, accessed February 9, 2014, http://www.npr.org/2009/06/22/105699329/evolution-of-a-song-strange-fruit.
 Margolick, David, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2002).