Blues Legacies And Black Feminism
The song that Holiday described as her personal protest against racism was " Strange Fruit ". Seemingly incongruous to her Tin Pan Alley repertoire, this song was one she insisted on performing nightly, as it allowed her to reconcile her fame with her social consciousness though music. Resolutely paving the way for the place of protest in the black popular musical tradition, Holiday "was able to awaken from their apolitical slumber vast numbers of people from diverse racial backgrounds."4 Dismissed by many critics as sheer propaganda, "Strange Fruit" articulated the collective rage of black people towards the unceasing brutality of a racist society.
Like Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions civil rights anthem "We're A Winner," Holiday's "Strange Fruit" changed the politics of American popular culture, despite the fact that many radio stations refused to play both of these songs. Holiday showed that she could do more than add emotion to the syrupy lyrics of pop songs, singing out a pithy and impassioned art of social and emotional value. With "Strange Fruit," she boldly challenged the tacit complicity of millions of white fans to the continued murder of her people. Resisting racist ideology as embodied in lynching, Holiday issued a poignant wakeup call, and it resonated everywhere, despite the fact that many remained impervious to the song's stark message. A woman in a Los Angeles nightclub asked Holiday, "Why don't you sing that sexy song you're so famous for? You know, the one about the naked bodies swinging in the trees." 5
Bluesman John Lee Hooker once said that the blues were born when Adam met Eve. In a patriarchal world, it is significant that black women were the first to record the blues. The images and ideas that filled their songstheir bluesresonated in the collective consciousness of black working class women of the 1920s. Rainey, Smith and other blueswomen encouraged their audiences to acknowledge and confront their demons, as the did by the lives they lived and chronicled in their songs. In doing so, they boldly articulated and shaped black feminist consciousness, paving the way for the social protest embodied in Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit," and for the struggles of egalitarian political activists of later decades.
1 Davis, Angela - Blues Legacies and Black Feminism : Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday p.11
2 IBID, p.10
3 IBID, p.180
4 IBID, p.182
5 IBID, p.195