April is Jazz Appreciation Month and, frankly, jazz could use more appreciation. American jazz musicians are revered the world over but even the music made by recognized masters such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus is considered a niche market in the states, a genre the general public generally avoids. What little radio airtime jazz gets is consigned to left-of-the-dial, donor-dependent stations.
Hard to imagine, then, that a song recorded by a jazz singer could not only sell a million copies but would also attract unwanted attention from the press and law enforcement.
Billie Holiday sang a song in public for the first time one evening in March 1939 and things weren’t the same afterward. The song’s lyrics called out an evil that part of the population lived in fear of, and another part preferred to sweep under the rug.
The lyrics to the song, “Strange Fruit,” were inspired by a photograph showing the mutilated bodies of two young black men hanging from a tree as a white crowd milled about as if at a block party.
Lynching – mob violence mostly directed at blacks accused of or suspected of committing a crime – was not uncommon at the time. Victims would be kidnapped and tortured until – and sometimes after – they died. Their corpses would be strung up from trees in a public place. They lyrics of “Strange Fruit” described the horrors of this racist practice:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit” on April 20, 1939. It sold 1 million copies, making it her biggest hit. The song also was met with walkouts, racist jeers and a ban on radio play in the U.S. and abroad. The song infuriated Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger hated jazz, and he associated the music – and minorities – with drug use. He went after Holiday, whose heroin addiction was public knowledge and whose health was beginning to fail, culminating in her being arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed. A judge ordered the cuffs removed but Holiday never left her bed. She died July 17, 1959, at the age of 44.
Holiday was gone but “Strange Fruit” lived on. It was revived as a civil rights anthem in the 1960s by Nina Simone. It’s been covered by performers ranging from jazz vocalists Abbey Lincoln and Cassandra Wilson to alternative rock bands such as the Cocteau Twins and Siouxsie & the Banshees.
The song and Anslinger’s campaign were central to the 2021 Hulu film, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The movie takes some dramatic liberties but the story of a truth-telling song and the backlash its singer endured is sobering.
Billie Holiday’s birthday is April 7. Commemorate it and Jazz Appreciation Month by listening to “Strange Fruit” but also the album Lady in Satin, one of the last recordings Holiday made. Recorded almost 20 years after “Strange Fruit,” Lady in Satin reveals the strain Holiday’s struggles with drugs, lovers and the law had on her voice. It’s a poignant and fitting epitaph for this doomed talent.
Holiday’s talents and tragic downfall have been explored in several works. The 2014 Broadway production Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill won Audra McDonald a Tony® for her portrayal of Holiday. She picked up an Emmy® as well when a performance of the play was filmed by and shown on HBO. Amazon Prime users can see the film with a trial subscription to BroadwayHD.
St. Petersburg’s FreeFall Theatre is presenting Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill through April 24. For more information go to FreeFall’s website or call (727) 498-5205.
Diana Ross’ portrayal of Holiday was the critical highlight of the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues. The film itself was criticized for its reliance on cliches and its historical inaccuracies. See for yourself on YouTube.
Billie, James Erskine’s 2019 documentary, has as its source interviews with a range of Holiday’s family, friends and acquaintances. The interviews provide an unfiltered look at Holiday’s life as well as the racism and indignities she endured as an African American performer. It’s available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime.
Finally, Holiday’s autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, is an entertaining read, albeit a factually questionable one.