Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #5, Fall 2000]

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights
By David Margolick
Running Press, 2000

Reviewed by Gay Davidson-Zielske

Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, seems to have a cartload of axes to grind in his Foreword to this book. But then, the author of the book, David Margolick, whose accolades include being a reporter for the New York Times, also seems determined to gore a few oxen. So together they form a kind of Paul Bunyan duo, slashing fairly recklessly at the edifice of myth and hearsay which has surrounded what became the totemic song of Billie Holiday's career, "Strange Fruit."

But before we get to the slashing part, a few posies: I like the idea of writing a whole book about the events surrounding a single song, especially one that also concerns one of my personal heroes, Billie Holiday. When I read an early review of Strange Fruit in the New York Times, I knew I would buy it, so I leapt at the chance to review it. The history Margolick undertakes recalls Bill Moyers' chronicle of people across the U.S. singing "Amazing Grace." Both endeavors help remind us that at least some important grassroots political and social work begins in humble people's kitchens and with one guy tapping out lyrics.

In the case of the song "Strange Fruit," that one guy seems an unusual source. The undisputed author, Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan), was a "white, Jewish schoolteacher from New York City" who may be better known for having befriended and adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after the famous pairs' execution. That he was a quiet liberal is apparent from a brief perusal of the lyrics of the first stanza: "Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root./ Black body swinging in the Southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees."

Like many artists of the time (he wrote this song in 1939, but lived until 1986) Meeropol had to step carefully around the accusations of the McCarthy period. (His masquerade as a stalwart booster of good redblooded Americanism may be witnessed by the choice of his song "The House I Live In" by Frank Sinatra -- " by [then] a Reagan Republican" -- to honor the Statue of Liberty.) Meeropol also strikes one as a tactful and humble person, though he professed disgust at the movie Lady Sings the Blues, starring Diana Ross, calling it a "slick" production in which "shabby, cheap values were substituted for the truth and facts of her [Holiday's] life."

Still the true author of the song could not let pass Billie Holiday's frequently repeated false claims that she (variously) wrote the song, co-wrote the song, and/or had the song written for her. Meeropol felt compelled to correct Holiday's official disinformation concerning the song's authorship contained in the singer's 1956 autobiography. But he was understanding of Lady Day herself: "I can understand the psychological reasons why the peripheral truths and actual facts surrounding her life were unimportant to her and why she took such liberties with them or invented some of them out of the whole cloth. I did not hold any emnity toward Billie Holiday."

One might only wish that the writer of the book's Foreword were so evenhanded. Hilton Als practically foams at the mouth (or typewriter or computer, whatever) when trying to counter the oft-repeated notion that Billie Holiday the person was probably not literate or sensitive or urbane enough to really understand the anti-lynching intent of the song. Als says it is "cruel, and often [?] racist or sexist or both, to measure this definer and re-shaper of American jazz [Holiday] by the mediocre standards we set for ourselves." Admire Holiday the singer though I do, the evidence in the book -- by people as close to her as her band members -- convinces me that she really didn't comprehend the metaphorical presentation of a phenomenon, lynching. Of course, as an African American woman who was frequently not allowed to accompany her white backup musicians into certain clubs' main doors, she could not have escaped understanding racism. But, by Meeropol's testimony, apparently, her only comment in first encountering the song was to inquire about the meaning of the word "pastoral." The author of the song doesn't go so far as to say she didn't understand its import, but did note that he "didn't think that she felt comfortable with the song" and had the shrewd interpreter and showperson in her not seen the galvanizing effect the song had on audiences, she might have chosen another as her theme song.

If Als is intemperate in his assessment of Holiday's relative grasp of her material, the author of the book, Margolick, attempts a small correction using an interesting technique. He counters hearsay with personal narratives of people close to Café Society, the epicenter of the jazz scene in 1939 when the song was introduced, and the memories of others in some way connected to Holiday's career and life. These memories range from those of legendary Charles Mingus to victims of racial tauntings who simply lived with the dread which permeated not only the South, but the North as well when white-robed riders left "the smell of burning flesh... the strange and bitter crop."

Also included is a very odd memory by Maya Angelou in which Angelou's young son asks the same question of Holiday that Holiday asked of the composer of the song: What is the meaning of pastoral? "It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That's what it means," Holiday responded with what Angelou calls "the thrust of rage."

Overall, however, I think Margolick adapts a too-defensive stance in regard to both the singer and the song. On balance, he seems to think that she was one "more sinned against than sinning" and I would agree. Perhaps she repeated her claim to the song so many times that, as often happens, she became convinced of its truth. My view of the singer can contain the nasty and inappropriate side too. Many observers commented that she frequently used the song to chastise unruly audiences, which seems to cheapen it. But she is also reported to have "mooned" another ungrateful audience. So what? She was an artist and artists like to command attention. She sang playful, flirty songs like "Miss Brown to You," long-suffering complaints like "My Man," and godawful wrenching songs like "Strange Fruit" with consummate styling. She was also killing herself with heroin and alcohol. But, like Whitman, she could "contain multitudes."

Priceless in this book are the photographs of the various players in the making and singing of this famous song and in the milieu of the time. Some flatter and some show the pain. I'm awfully glad they are there. The only thing better would be one of those little plastic records one used to find stuck in the front pages of some books about music.

I am listening to my old and scratched recordings of Billie as I write this and I have to say: Whether or not she understood the song when she first performed it, she had it down by the time she recorded it. Today's lynchings on the basis of skin color are not as common as in our shameful past (though the family of James Bird might beg to differ) and the victims are now more likely to be gay as they are to be black (witness the recent murder of a deaf gay man in Barron County, Wisconsin), but nobody listening to Billie Holiday can avoid seeing the "cr-o-o-o-o-aw-op" still hanging in the air when she sings the last chilling word.

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Gay Davidson-Zielske spent some of her most formative years nodding soulfully to the music of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Ida Cox. As a result, she teaches English composition, literature, and creative writing at UW-Whitewater with a sense of great ennui, frequently employing lyrics from her favorite blues and jazz singers to show that poetry lives best outside of textbooks.

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