What art can do for social change
Sunday, April 9,
Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe
Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights
by David Margolick. Running Press. 144 pages. $16.95.
More important than being the
definitive work on the song itself, David Margolick's
"Strange Fruit" offers a fascinating slice of social
history. Placing Billie Holiday's song at its center, the
book is a rich mosaic of the biographies of both singer and
songwriter, the New York jazz scene in the late '30s and
'40s, and the culture of American racism.
Though he discusses its musical and
emotional impact as well, Margolick makes an excellent case
for "Strange Fruit" as a protest song. When Holiday first
began performing the song in the late '30s, some heard a
rebuke of Congress for its failure to pass anti-lynching
laws, others a striking representation of injustices endured
by blacks. According to Margolick, Holiday herself both
perceived the advocacy of civil rights and felt it a very
personal song, often singing "Strange Fruit" when she felt
sad or when an unruly audience needed to be punished.
Lyrics about a "Black body swinging
in the Southern breeze," and the graphic social criticism of
lines like "Pastoral scene of the gallant South/ The bulging
eyes and the twisted mouth" shocked listeners. Indeed,
Columbia Records, then Holiday's record label, refused to
issue the song (Commodore Records released it in 1939). The
song's performance must have amplified this shock. Margolick
explains that, at the club Cafe Society, Holiday's rendition
would begin like this: All service stops, the room goes
"completely dark, save for a pin spot on Holiday's face."
Then, Holiday sings the song, walks off the stage, does not
return for a bow, ignoring any ovation. Details like these -
of which the book offers many - make vivid the story of the
song and its importance.
Margolick's book also clears up
myths about the song's authorship: "Lewis Allan," who wrote
both words and music without collaborators (contrary to
Holiday's claims), is in fact Abel Meeropol, best known for
adopting the children of the Rosenbergs. But beyond setting
the facts straight, this compact volume delivers a history
lesson that is powerful, entertaining and sobering. As one
person fortunate enough to hear Holiday perform "Strange
Fruit" said, "It was startling, and I'll never forget it. I
thought, 'That's what art can do.'"
Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College