Strange and Bitter: A Billie Holiday Performance

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.” [1]  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.” [2]  And it did.  It silenced an audience and challenged a nation.

[1] 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.

[2] Margolick, David, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Philadelphia:  Running Press, 2002).

18 thoughts on “Strange and Bitter: A Billie Holiday Performance

    1. Nothing I saw expressly stated why he set up these guidelines, but it stands to reason it was probably due to the nature of the song. The lyrics and meaning are so intense that these guidelines are designed to keep it the focus of the performance; the song becomes the central focus with these house rules.

  1. This powerful song has been covered by many artists whose songs carry a political message. Kanye West sampled Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” in “Blood on the Leaves” from his Yeezus album released last year. Throughout his career, West has talked about being vilified for being an outspoken African American male, and how his own self-pride and ego was cultivated by his mother, a Civil Rights activist and college professor. At the same time, West often points out the hypocrisy of his own consumerism. In his music, West often pairs the sacred (Simone’s chilling rendition of “Strange Fruit”) and the profane (C-Murder’s 2000 club-banger “Down 4 My N****z), a paradox often associated with children of the hip hop generation whose parents and grandparents fought for Civil Rights. West and his contemporaries enjoy the benefits of their elders’ sacrifices–West himself had daughter last year with fiance Kim Kardashian, an offense that would have been met with violence earlier in the 20th century. At the same time, the hip hop generation is often characterized as irreverent, wasting the Civil Rights Movement’s advances on shallow and capitalist pursuits like money, cars, drugs, and casual sex.
    West performed “Blood on the Leaves” at the 2013 Video Music Awards, and until Kahla’s post I did not recognize the connections between Billie Holiday’s and West’s performances. West opens the song standing solemnly on stage under a dark, foreboding lighting. The first verse is shot close up to West’s face. Then, suddenly, the music bursts into a sample from TNGHT’s “Are U Ready,” and West begins violently dancing in front of the image of a poplar tree. The black/red lighting turn West’s body into a shadow. West’s shadowy figure chaotically moving, jumping, stretching to the song’s intense beat creates an almost demonic atmosphere. Here is the clip from the performance: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/948751/blood-on-the-leaves-live.jhtml
    I’m wondering what everyone else thinks of this song and West’s performance. On the one hand, I agree that West has been mistreated by the media because he has been outspoken about racial inequality. At the same time, I’m wondering if “Strange Fruit” is simply too sacred of a song to be used in this way? Also I am uncomfortable with West’s comparison between his own experience and victims of lynching. Perhaps this song is meant as an act of resistance against critics who wish to silence West?

    1. Although I do think of “Strange Fruit” as a very sacred song, I like that West ties it into his music. I see it as a way to appeal to this new generation to generate self-consciousness and self-awareness of the realities of what it was like to experience Jim Crow.

      1. I’m definitely conflicted about the VMA video and partially agree with the notion that it may have been in poor taste for Kanye to appropriate the song’s lyrics. But, I think Araya raises a really important point about appealing to a new generation. “Strange Fruit” is clearly one of the iconic songs of the 20th century. But, for the people in the crowd who heard Kanye’s performance, would they even know “Strange Fruit” or Billie Holiday? I don’t say this out of musical or historical snobbery, but I wonder if the allusion to “Strange Fruit” (and, more importantly, lynching and/or civil rights activism) is lost on some in the audience. Needless to say, Kanye has established himself as one of the iconic artists of the 21st century so I, ultimately, applaud him for keeping Billie Holiday and “Strange Fruit” in the public spotlight. Hopefully, his performance will serve as an entree for future generations to explore the interplay between civil rights and the arts.

      2. This sort of musical translation/sampling is not a new phenomenon. I really don’t know why Kanye uses this song here, but I do think that it contributes to extending the lifespan of Strange Fruit and keeps it embedded in our culture, though it may take new shape. I do understand how it could be seen as being used in poor taste. I’m going to think about this song more and how Kanye uses Strange Fruit. Thanks for sharing, Jillian!

    2. I had a slightly different interpretation when it came to “West’s shadowy figure chaotically moving, jumping, [and] stretching.” To me the movements seemed to be purposefully enacted to harken back to a body struggling for life as they were being tortured. This combined with the imagery of the tree suggested to me that Kayne was attempting to pay his respects to the message of “Strange Fruit,” however I have to agree with Britney that the superficial lyrics over top of the song detract from the potentially powerful message.

    3. Although I think the use of “Strange Fruit” in “Blood on the Leaves” is successful musically, I think it’s a bit of a cheap comparison for Kanye West to make between lynching and the trappings of fame. The song doesn’t talk about experiences of racism or violence, but rather a relationship that went sour from being in the limelight. My feelings about Kanye West and his overuse of auto-tune aside, I think this song did not, for me, pack the emotional punch that West was seemingly going for.

  2. It’s true that Billie Holiday’s voice sounds so striking in this recording, almost as if her voice wasn’t entirely up to the task that night. She’s a brilliant singer, so when she bends the notes and lets them waiver in an out of tune (especially the last note), it sounds a little like crying. Was it on purpose? Maybe, maybe not.

    To follow up with the reply: I am a little uncomfortable with West’s performance too. The last thing Holiday was trying to do was throw a tantrum with this song. Yes, “Strange Fruit” silences the crowd. It can still be chilling when watching it on a computer screen. Music has an almost magic subtlety when crafted to be poignant. West was releasing a lot of emotion while he performed, but was the music sending a similar message? My opinion is no. It feels like bad taste to appropriate a famous poignant sound–and image in this case–to give your own music an edge. I think West could take a few lessons from Billie Holiday on how to get the reaction he wants when expressing an important idea.

    1. You bring up an interesting notion, that West was using the sound and image of “Strange Fruit” to give his performance an edge. I’m wondering if there’s something to his performance we’re missing. We’re taught as museum professionals to look for the “big idea,” the theme that ties everything together. So between the use of “Strange Fruit,” the poplar tree, and the passionate performance by West, is there a larger point to be made about racial inequality? I don’t think this is immediately evident in West’s performance, which is why we are so uncomfortable with the performance as a whole.

      As Britney said, we will have to keep thinking about this one.

  3. Thanks for the article, Kahla. As I mentioned when we were chatting about the other day, I have heard this song on a number of occasions, but had never really put it in the context of a protest song. I find it interesting to read that the song’s writer was inspired by an image, as many pieces of protest art, and protest in general, have been in the past.

    As for Kayne’s performance- Jillian- I initially have mixed feelings about it too. My first reaction was similar to Patrick’s. I do feel like it exploits such an important song in a way, and it does seem in bad taste given some of the superficial lyrics that he raps over it. He does, however, perform it in such a passionate way that I do think it pays some tribute to the song’s original meaning. Could it be that while his experience no where meets that of victims of lynching, the song as a backdrop serves as a reminder that West’s generation is still struggling with the consequences of the pre-Civil Rights era, even if they are not physical? I’m really not sure. I think I will have to continue to think about this one.

    1. I really like your idea that West is trying to remind others that his generation is still dealing with the Jim Crow era. I think that could be a really interesting way to look at his song and important to remember. But does his sampling of the song accomplish that? Does our generation have the background to understand the history surrounding Strange Fruit and the difference between Holiday’s rendition and Nina Simone’s? Also having heard West’s song I’ll never be able to hear Simone’s version of Strange Fruit without also hearing West’s version. I don’t have the same reaction to Holiday’s.

  4. Like West, Tupac also accredited many of his ideas and outspoken attitude to his mother, who was actively involved in the Black Panthers. Tupac is a representative of the children of the civil rights and Black Power generation. However, thoughts about whether he lives up to this role are contradictory. After his rise to celebrity status, Tupac would be imprisoned on charges of rape and sodomy and shot five times before being gunned down. His lyrics featured black-on-black violence, drugs, placing a priority on making money, and the treatment of women as sex objects. Due to these excesses, it seems like he was not living up to the legacy and the new opportunities that were available to blacks after the 1960’s. On the other hand, he was also acknowledged as a 1990’s-style revolutionary, because his lyrics and interviews also provided insight into how he related violence with nihilism, total rejection of established laws and institutions.

    While racial inequality is still present, the times have changed. How we address these problems must change as well. Billie Holiday’s performance is certainly haunting, but there is something in it’s slow simplicity that makes it that way. In contrast, West’s performance was loud and chaotic. I thought the use of his silhouette against the popular tree was just as haunting, but in a different way. Not being able to see his face, he was just a black body. He could have been any black body. Projected onto the image, it looked almost as if he could have been hanging from the tree. I imagine his jerking movements could have resembled what might have been witnessed as a lynching. I agree with Britney in that I think he is trying to pay tribute to the song’s original meaning, but he changes the words of the songs to make it more relatable to issues facing African Americans today and the style of performance to better reach his intended audience. It’s tone is undeniably different, but I feel it still holds power.

    I don’t know whether I kind Billie Holiday’s version of the song to be “sacred.” I feel like that’s a big label to put on something. The part of the definition of sacred that I think may apply in this case that the song is too deserving of respect to be violated. However, I feel like it is the ideas behind it that are what truly make it worthy of respect, not the performance. As long as West or any other artist stay true to those ideas, is their protest not as worthy? If not, what makes Holiday’s version different?

    1. Maybe that definition of sacred is not applicable. The song should be covered respectfully and in a way that allows an audience of any generation to grasp the meaning and emotion behind it. While Kayne’s song might be an attempt to make it more current, I agree that much of his audience may not understand the original message of the song just from his version. Billie Holiday’s performance was important because it left a strong impression on the audience. The Jim Crow era is taught in schools, but whether students truly understand the implications of the period for African Americans is another story. A popular and current version of the song might be able to teach this history better than a Social Studies text book.

      1. Sorry, I misread your post. I thought the definition of sacred you were positing (and why you were saying that the word was too strong) was that it was something that should not be touched. I agree with your argument that it is something that should not be violated.

    2. I never considered the use of shadow to illustrate a body hanging from a tree. That’s very chilling, Emily… A lot of people seem conflicted regarding Kanye’s use of superficial lyrics layered on top of the lyrics to Strange Fruit. I assume this contrast was intentional on his part. Perhaps it is an illustration on how far we’ve come, even if we still have a lot farther to go. People in the past had to worry about open lynchings. That was reality. Perhaps he’s using the song to comment on how activists fought for change (still are), and how that change means that this new generation’s biggest concerns are about something less frightening than lynchings. It’s beautiful in a way. Now they’re free to be concerned with these little, seemingly shallow concerns.

  5. I just want to provide a little counter-point–In my experience most people in the African American community (even those in the hip hop generation) recognize “Strange Fruit” and are familiar with the reality of racial violence, lynching, etc. Although white males are the largest consumer population of hip hop, I don’t think Kanye West’s album was necessarily created for a white audience–another song on the album is called “Black Skinhead” for goodness sake!

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