Tinged with sorrow but sung with love

Blues: `Strange Fruit,' the mournful dirge about lynching, is forever linked with Billie Holiday. A new book about the singer from Baltimore recalls the moment she introduced it.

June 13, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

On a late winter night early in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage at New York's CafM-i Society and, with a single pin light illuminating her face, sang a new song called "Strange Fruit."

"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. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh! Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop." Lady Day sang "Strange Fruit" as a prolonged cry from the heart. As she sang the last word almost as a sob, the spotlight snapped off and the audience sat silent in the darkness.

A single person began clapping.

"Then suddenly everybody was clapping," Holiday wrote in her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues."

David Margolick recalls that moment again in his new book, "Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, CafM-i Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights."

"The applause grew louder," Margolick writes, "and a bit less tentative as `Strange Fruit' became a nightly ritual for Holiday, then one of her most successful records, then one of her signature songs - at least in those places it was safe to perform."

Margolick thinks that in 1939, when segregation and discrimination were more the rule than the exception in the United States, CafM-i Society was really the only night club in the country where Holiday could have sung "Strange Fruit" before an audience both black and white.

"There was no one else who could have introduced the song," Margolick says, over the phone. "And no other place where it could have been introduced."

Even in New York City, CafM-i Society at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village was the only "truly integrated nightclub, a place catering to progressive types with open minds." Old Lefties, in other words. In contrast, uptown on 51st Street, the glittering Stork Club - the subject of another new book - was "famously bigoted," Margolick says.

This dirge-like song about lynching was unique in Holiday's repertoire and unique in the American popular songbook. There still is nothing quite like it. And its power remains undiminished. In its Dec. 31, 1999, issue, Time magazine called "Strange Fruit," "The Best Song of the Century: In this sad, shadowy song about lynching in the South, history's greatest jazz singer comes to terms with history itself."

Already a star

Billie Holiday was just 24 in 1939 and at the height of her powers as a singer. She'd sung with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Buck Clayton and Lester Young, who dubbed her Lady Day. Now she was a star in her own right. She began singing at the CafM-i Society when it opened in January 1939.

"She's very young and she's strong enough to sing ["Strange Fruit"] with a kind of contempt and confidence," Margolick says. "She's cocky almost. At a time when people weren't talking about lynching, she was singing about it."

Lady Day had survived a poor, sad and troubled childhood in Baltimore.

In her notoriously untrustworthy 1954 autobiography with its famous opening line, "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was 3," she says she was born here. So does the New Grove Encyclopedia of American Music and Musicians. But it has been pretty well established that she was born in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagan. And Mom and Pop were never married.

New Grove gets it right about her music, though: "More than nearly any other singer, Holiday phrased her performances in the manner of a jazz instrumental soloist and, accordingly, she has to be seen as a complete jazz musician and not merely a singer."

Here in Baltimore she probably first heard recordings of the two singers she said most influenced her style, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.

"There's no question her conception of jazz was formed in Baltimore," says Stuart Nicholson, one of her biographers.

She sang in after-hours joints, "good time" houses and whorehouses in Baltimore, according to another biographer, Robert O'Meally.

She remembered living in the 200 block of South Durham Street in Upper Fells Point, and near North and Pennsylvania avenues. In a famous passage in her autobiography, she recalled sleeping with her great-grandmother and awakening one morning clasped in the dead woman's cold arms.

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