Strange Fruit

6/01/2011 07:02:00 PM / Posted by Iron Lung /

"Southern trees bear strange fruit…” Billie Holiday’s voice carries with it a certain eminence of pain and sorrow that is unmistakable in her rendition of this song, that later turned out to be one of her most popular. For as long as I have been listening to jazz, Billie Holiday has remained as one of my favorite vocalists despite her lack of range. Her voice was raw and like the many great soloists, it was her defining characteristic that propelled her into being one of the greats.

            “Strange Fruit” was actually written by a Jewish couple about the savagery of lynching, which was still rampant in the South. Billie Holiday approached her label about doing a cover of the song but the label decided not to back it. This decision was more than likely a financial safety net, a way to not lose sales in the South by releasing a song that openly criticized it. Milt Gabler, a friend of hers, decided to help her release the song and her label issued a one session release in order for it to be possible.
The recording gives me chills each time. The instrumentation is crafted beautifully to give off a sensation of angst, and loneliness. Her vocals chime in and radiate from her soul. The lyrics paint a picture few wanted to admit as a reality. This is a quintessential example of music being a catalyst for change. Despite the sadness and pain in the words, it also expresses a call for solidarity.
Music has the power to move people. Music can unite and it can spark change. “Strange Fruit” is a testament to that. It became part of her live set and managed to maintain its power. The lyrics are poignant and the wordage is simple, making the song relatable and accessible. The live version varies a bit from the recorded version. It seems to be darker and more personal, somehow more romantic. This song found itself the perfect spokesperson in Billie Holiday, it not only helped garner her more acclaim but also brought attention to a social white elephant.


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