Book Reviews


What art can do for social change

Sunday, April 9, 2000

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.'"
     (Phil Nel is a visiting instructor of English at the College of Charleston.)


Click here to send feedback.

Copyright © 2000 Charleston.Net. All Rights Reserved.