Carole Boston Weatherford (Courtesy Photo)
By Carole Boston Weatherford
Lady Day, “Strange Fruit” and the Test of Time
When Billie Holiday released “Strange Fruit” in 1939, Time magazine panned the song. But not before dissing the 24-year-old singer. The music critic went from body-shaming her for not dieting to claiming that she chose the song only for its tune, rather than its political lyrics, which he deemed over her head.
How dare he suggest that a Black woman of the Jim Crow era was oblivious to lynching. Born Eleanora Fagan in 1915 and raised in Baltimore, Md., Holiday likely did not recall some events of her early childhood: the 1915 Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation, the Red Summer of 1919 or the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Yet, she surely encountered the color line in everyday life. Beginning in 1910, Baltimore passed a series of laws requiring segregated housing. Public schools, like the one Holiday attended, had segregated faculty and student bodies. And a 1922 National Urban League study found that two-thirds of Baltimore’s factories would not hire Black workers. As Baltimore native Thurgood Marshall noted, “The only thing different between the South and Baltimore was trolley cars. They weren’t segregated. Everything else was. . . .”
After Holiday moved to New York City with her mother and became a singer, she faced discrimination in the jazz world. She performed at the Cotton Club, the Harlem speakeasy where Black entertainers and staff catered to a whites-only audience. On tour with the all-white Artie Shaw band, she was sometimes barred by promoters from performing. And a Detroit theater owner forced her to wear dark makeup for fear that she might be mistaken for white while fronting Count Basie’s all-Black band. Back then, Black performers had to enter through back doors, use service elevators and stay with Black residents in towns lacking a Black-owned hotel.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 to fight “racialized violence” and inequities. From 1909 to 1939, 755 African Americans were lynched in the U.S. In protest, the NAACP hung a flag, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” from its New York headquarters.
Even if that somber flag escaped Holiday’s notice, she knew the toll of white supremacy. Suffering from pneumonia while on tour in Texas, her musician father died after a white hospital refused care.
In 1938, Holiday was headlining at Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, when owner Barney Josephson shared the song “Strange Fruit” with her. Composed first as a protest poem—and later put to melody—by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol (under the name Lewis Allan), the song resonated with Holiday. Capitol, her record label, refused the song but released her to record it with the smaller Commodore label.
Recorded on April 20, 1939, the song rose within weeks to number 16 on the charts, making it Holiday’s biggest hit. That Time critic pegged the song as propaganda for the NAACP.
“Strange Fruit” became Holiday’s signature song but also a cross to bear. Warned by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) to cease performing the anthem, Holiday bravely resisted. She ended each set with “Strange Fruit” and granted no encores. As Lee Daniel’s film The United States vs. Billie Holiday documents, her activism provoked the Federal Bureau of Narcotics to frame her on drug charges. Her conviction cost her not only her freedom but also her cabaret license. After Holiday’s release from prison, federal agents continued to dog her. Arrested while hospitalized, she died in 1959 at age 44 under police custody.
And by 1999, Time had changed its tune, declaring “Strange Fruit” the song of the century. Sadly, the song is as timely as ever today.
Carole Boston Weatherford has authored more than 60 books including the verse novel Becoming Billie Holiday, illustrated by Floyd Cooper. A Baltimore native and two-time NAACP Image Award-winner, she teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. http://cbweatherford.com