Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26: Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"

Artist: Billie Holiday
Song: "Strange Fruit"
Album: Strange Fruit (single)
Year: 1939

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There are certain performers in the long history of recorded music who even in the act of speaking their name, demand the highest level of respect, even if one is not familiar with their music.  Their names alone have managed to transcend "just" music and have become a part of the history of culture itself.  While performers who fall into this category are without question exceptionally few in number, it is their influence within the world of music that clearly shaped the art into its current form; most likely in many different ways.  In a number of these cases, not only did the artist alter the state of music, but they made massive forays into society itself, and few have made their mark on history in as staggering and lasting a manner as that of the legendary Billie Holiday.  From her appearance to her voice to her unapologetic social critiques, Billy Holiday can truly be cited as not only a brilliant performer, but an individual that truly pushed the human race forward.  The way in which she moved vocal performances from simply singing the notes to conveying deep and personal emotions forever altered the way in which singers approached music, and there is quite literally not a single sub-par recording anywhere in her catalog.  However, there is no question that when it comes to defining Billie Holiday, one need look no further than her monumental, revolutionary, and unquestionably courageous 1939 single, "Strange Fruit."

The development of "Strange Fruit" is a rather peculiar one, and yet it now stands as one of the most well known stories in music history.  The lyrics were actually written as a poem that was published by a New York City teacher, Abel Meeropol in 1936.  After trying to find others to do so, Meeropol eventually set the song to music, and performed it alongside vocalist Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.  How the song found its way to Billie Holiday is somewhat "up for debate," but once it did, she turned it into a regular part of her set.  Yet due to the extremely controversial nature of the song, it was performed under very specific circumstances.  Regardless of the venue, Holiday made the song the last in her set, and there were never any encores that followed.  Also, food and drink service would be stopped well in advance of the song, and all of the lights in the venue would be turned off, save a lone pin-spot on Holiday's face.  Arranging for "Strange Fruit" to actually get recorded was understandably a bit of a difficult maneuver, as CBS Records, which owned the rights to Holiday, was not interested in releasing the song, largely out of fear of alienating their audience in the South.  Though Holiday had been performing the song for quite some time, CBS Records ended up giving her a single session leave, and she recorded the song under the Commodore Records label in both 1939 and again in 1944.

It is the later recording with which most are familiar, beginning with the slow, somber, wailing trumpet, which leads into an almost marching piano introduction.  In early performances of "Strange Fruit," this introduction was absent, and it was during the 1939 session where it was first improvised by Sonny White.  Completely drawing the listener into the song, during later performances, Holiday would do nothing more than stand in front of the microphone, eyes closed, as this delicate, somewhat haunting melody set the tone.  Yet the moment that Holiday begins singing, the reason she is held in such high regard is instantly clear, as not only does she possess one of the most powerful and emotive voices in history, but the actual sound of her voice cannot be mistaken.  Bringing a bit of grit to her singing set her far apart from other jazz-style performers of the era, and there is a painful sense of proximity to the lyrics that leaves listeners just as stunned and speechless today it they did more than seventy years ago.  Through both the music, as well as the timbre of her voice, the song transports the listener to a hot and humid gathering in the deep South, and even by today's standards, the words Holiday sings are rather graphic and disturbing.  The lyrics are as straightforward and honest as Holiday's voice, and there is no question that "Strange Fruit" stands as one of the most important and influential protest and political songs ever recorded. 

It has been well documented that even after performing the song for years, every evening Billie Holiday would be reduced to tears backstage following the end of the song.  One can sense this complete emotional dedication to the song within the studio recordings, and on many levels, she is singing far beyond the capabilities of any other vocalist in history.  There is an authoritative, almost holy presence to her performance on "Strange Fruit," and moreso than any other song, one cannot ignore the emotion and anger within both the music and vocals.  Almost instantly following the release of the song, it was heralded as a monumental achievement, and the Cafe Society Club in New York City took out ads with direct references to Holiday's nightly performance of "Strange Fruit."  Furthermore, the existence of the song and everything it stood for was without question one of the most pivotal moments in the Civil Rights movement, as it was the first "popular" song to brazenly attack the issues of racism, and more directly lynching, that were occurring all across the country.  Though it would take a few more decades for "real" action to be taken against these issues, there is no overstating the importance that "Strange Fruit" played in the progress of humanity in becoming a more tolerant society.  Even today, the song is still used by those who are oppressed all across the globe, and one can easily argue that Billie Holiday's breathtaking 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit" remains the most groundbreaking, pivotal moment in music history.

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