Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Strange fruit

A kid growing up in the 1950s, in the northwestern part of the northern state of Wisconsin, heard a lot of cool music. But he seldom heard Billie Holiday. And he never heard "Strange Fruit."

Never mind that Holiday, a famous jazz singer, was near the top of her game (although on the way down, dying in 1959 in her mid-40s.). This is a black woman who grew up tough to an unmarried mom and a musician father who was never there. She apparently was a prostitute working at age 12 out of a Baltimore waterfront warehouse, and later sang for tips for a living.

She made it big, and is well known for many cool songs. But, in 1939, she sang her coolest song of all. It was called "Strange Fruit," written by a young high school teacher named Abel Meeropol, and it was about a taboo subject in the 1930s - lynching.

"Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood on the roots
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breezes
Strange fruit swinging in the Southern breeze."

A 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 a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop."

This in 1939. She sang this song, with much trepidation, and then no doubt had to take the service elevator down from the stage of the Lincoln Hotel in New York so as not to offend the white customers with her black presence.

As I said, I had to wait a long time to hear her song. When I finally did, I was not pleased with the wait.

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