To close one’s eyes and listen to Billie Holiday is to conjure, effortlessly, a sea of emotions and scenes as turbulent and real as whitecaps in an ocean. Known for her vocal style, which is reminiscent of impromptu jazz melodies, Holiday’s voice transcends the boundaries of reality and sends the listener—decades later—to a moment as unflinchingly real as the record from which it floats. She sang of love and heartbreak, emotions ranging from rage to giddiness; she sang of the beauty of Southern cities in “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans,” and of the harsh realities of history in “Strange Fruit.”
Holiday’s Southern roots had a major influence on her musical style and content. Her mother, Sarah Julia “Sadie” Fagan, grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, but found her way to Philadelphia after being evicted by her parents following her youthful pregnancy. Billie Holiday (christened Eleanora Fagan) was born in Philadelphia but was quickly sent back to Baltimore to live with Fagan’s married half-sister, Eva Miller, who in turn passed on responsibility for the child to her mother-in-law, Martha Miller. Growing up in Baltimore, the young Holiday’s childhood and future were largely shaped by this last vestige of Southern culture south of the Mason-Dixon, as well as, unfortunately, its fundamental racial prejudice.
Without a positive or consistent role model (her mother visited infrequently between periods of working “transportation jobs” on passenger railroads) or a stringent education program for black Americans in the South, Holiday found herself in and out of Catholic reform school throughout her youth. When she was finally released in February of 1927, she was employed by a local Maryland brothel running errands; it was at this brothel that Holiday first heard the music of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith. The music, full of candid emotion, plucked delicately at the young girl’s heartstrings and mesmerized her for life. After the psychological and physical traumas of her childhood in Maryland, it is no surprise that Holiday sought salvation, comfort, and connection in the passionately emotional jazz tunes that filled the brothel’s suffocating air.
Holiday moved to Harlem in the late 1920’s and began singing in local nightclubs in the early ’30s. Though Holiday found herself deeply immersed in the culture of New York, she never severed ties to her Southern youth. As her fame grew throughout the 1930’s, Holiday often found herself faced with the prejudice common in the South at that time in American history, but she consistently pushed back against it. Her associates, such as Artie Shaw (who created her role as one of the first black female artists to perform with a white orchestra), supported her cultural backbone and often heartened her at such moments of discomfort. When, for example, a Kentucky man insulted her race during a performance, Holiday did not concede to such intolerance, but proceeded to lecture the man with such venomous passion that she was eventually escorted off stage. But Holiday’s magnum opus, her most popular and poignant resistance to racial prejudice, came in the form of “Strange Fruit.”
“Strange Fruit” was written in 1937 as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. Meeropol used vivid imagery which highlighted the blatant cruelty of the primarily Southern practice of lynching, popular at the turn of the century but still occurring with alarming frequency in the 1930’s. He juxtaposed the “pastoral scene of the gallant South” with scenes of lynching; imposed upon the traditional scent of “magnolias sweet and fresh” was the noxious, unnatural “smell of burnin’ flesh.” Meeropol forced readers—and, eventually, listeners—to balance their idealized, romanticized visions of the South with the reality, which at the time was still a prejudiced and, at times, flagrantly racist land. Meeropol and his wife set the poem to music and, after being denied by multiple record labels and performers, eventually performed the song themselves at protests across New York, including Madison Square Garden.
At the time of “Strange Fruit’s” initial popularity, Holiday was performing at Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York’s first integrated nightclub. When Holiday was approached regarding her performance of the poem, she was hesitant to accept. Holiday feared foremost negative backlash from her performance of such unabashed protest of American racism. Secondly, the song tugged poignantly at Holiday’s own history, since her father’s death stemmed from prejudice (the jazz musician had been denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder because of his race). Despite her reluctance, Holiday stoked her courage and decided to perform the song—for herself, her country, and the soul of the South.
Holiday and her team intentionally respected and amplified the power of the song during her performance. Holiday always performed “Strange Fruit” last and never followed the sober tune with an encore. In preparation for “Strange Fruit,” the waiters of Cafe Society silenced the audience and dimmed the lights; a single light shone down upon Holiday’s ardent face. Holiday insisted upon singing the song with eyes closed, evoking the impression of a passionately and immovably praying figure. At the end of her performance the single light would extinguish; when the lights once again rose, she was gone.
Holiday’s performance and its popularity were unparalleled at Cafe Society. The public’s acceptance of “Strange Fruit” inspired Holiday to pursue recording an album with the song. Though contracted to Columbia Records, the record label rejected Holiday’s proposal to record the song for fear of the reaction of Southern retailers as well as retaliation from CBS, their co-owned radio network. Columbia did, however, grant Holiday permission to pursue recording the song with another label outside of her contractual obligations. Holiday approached her friend Milt Gabler of Commodore Records regarding the song and sang “Strange Fruit” for him a cappella. Her performance moved him to tears. Holiday recorded the somber tune with Commodore Records in 1939. The song went on to become her greatest hit, selling one million records in 1939 alone, and propelled Holiday into true fame.
Watching Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit” is as heart-wrenching and emotionally poignant today as it was seventy-five years ago. Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit” created her position in the history of Southern civil rights and strongly influenced the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. TIME magazine named “Strange Fruit” the “Song of the Century” in 1999, a title, far from simply a symbolic epithet, that carries an explicit observation of the song’s influence on American culture throughout the twentieth century. Throughout her career, Holiday reacted against the negative stereotypes of the South, even as she used her upbringing as inspiration for her music and sound. As the lyrics of “Strange Fruit” describe, and as Holiday herself proved, the South in the early twentieth century was no doubt a beautiful place, capable of producing beautiful people— but it also possessed a dark side that needed eradicating. With the help of Holiday and “Strange Fruit,” that darkness is greatly diminished, and we are left with more of those “magnolias sweet and fresh.”