Friday, May 29, 2020

Strange Fruit—Murfin Home Confinement Music Festival 2020

Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holiday

We interrupt our Home Confinement Music Festival to take sad and outraged note of another deadly plague—the lynching of Blacks and other people of color due to lives devalued by systematic racism and white privilege.  Yes, the lynchings that Ida B. Wells wrote about 130 years ago, that the NAACP investigated and exposed beginning 100 years ago, and that Billie Holiday sang about 80 years ago are still with us, they just look different.  Most of the time instead of hangman’s nooses or stakes and pyres we now have police violence and white nationalist inspired vigilantism, Instead of a howling mob we can have a single white woman set up a Black man for possible police execution with a feigned hysterical call.

This poster is being sold to raise money for the ACLU's continued responses to police violence and murder;
The same old shit wrapped up in a pretty bow for the 21st Century.  Just ask George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Amand Aurbry, and Christopher Cooper to name just a few of the most recent victims.

AbelMeeropol cited this photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, as inspiring his poem.
Strange Fruit was written in 1937 as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish poet, writer, teacher, activist and songwriter under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings.  He published the poem under the title Bitter Fruit in The New York Teacher, a Teachers Union magazine.  He had asked others, notably Earl Robinson to set his poems to music, he wrote the music for Strange Fruit himself. Meeropol, his wife Anne, and Black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden rally.

Abel Meeropol wrote the kyric and music for Strange Fruit and first sang with his wife Anne at a Madison Square Garden rally 1939.

Accounts are conflicting on exactly how nightclub chanteuse and band singer Billie Holiday got the song.  We do know that despite fearing to sing it because it might make her a target of racial assault herself, that she first performed in in 1939 at Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub.  She continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances with special demands for her performance venues—she would close with it; waiters had to stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
Fearing boycotts Southern record stores and retribution against the affiliates of its CBS Radio Network Holliday’s regular label, Columbia Records, refused to issue a recording and her regular producer John Hammond, usually an outspoken liberal, refused to work on it.  Eventually Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz, got one time agreement from Columbia to release a version with Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band on April 20, 1939.

A photographer captured Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit as she recorded it in 1939
Holiday recorded two major sessions with the one in 1939 and another in 1944. The song was highly regarded; the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies, in time becoming Holiday’s biggest-selling recording.  She continued to sing it live in all of her appearances for the rest of her troubled life.  She became so identified with the song that she is often credited erroneously as a writer or co-writer.
The song has been covered by others, most notably in a searing performance by Nina SimoneDiana Ross sang it in the 1972 bio pick Lady Sings the Blues

The movie poster for the melodramatic bio-pic Lady Sings the Blues.

The extraordinary honors for Holiday’s masterpiece recording include:  election to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978; Best Song of the Century by Time magazine in 1999; one of 50 recordings chosen that in 2002 to add to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress; one of the Top 20 Political Songs by The New Statesman in 2010; as the #1 of 100 Songs of the South by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2011; and t was also included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Once described a “declaration of war” and “the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement,” Strange Fruit horribly relevant yet again.

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