All About Jazz

Home » Articles » Book Reviews

614

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights

Victor L. Schermer By

Sign in to view read count
Strange Fruit
David Margolick
Running Press
144pp. Photos
0195100832

This is a book about a song. The song is "Strange Fruit," with a haunting melody and an earth shattering lyric about the abhorrent and horribly common Southern lynchings of African Americans which stand as an ugly symbol of race hatred however and wherever it may occur. The song, utterly powerful and totally different from jazz as a form of "entertainment," became one of the "signature" tunes of Billie Holiday, so much so that many, including the present writer, mistakenly believed that she wrote it, a belief she herself engendered. She first sung "Strange Fruit" in 1939 at The Cafe Society, a trendy yet iconoclastic Greenwich Village club frequented by left-wingers and entertainers and which was one of the first nightclubs to welcome African Americans. Indeed, blacks were treated with special favor and respect at the club, which was owned by a white "left-winger" named Barney Josephson. The club became one of Billie's regular venues from the late thirties through the 1950s.

The song's actual composer was Abel Meeropol (pen name, Lewis Allan), a Bronx school teacher who also wrote the patriotic and anti-discriminatory song "The House I Live In," made famous by Frank Sinatra. Meeropol was a political radical and prolific writer, who also adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg when they were electrocuted in the 1950's for alleged spy activities for the Soviet Union. Thus, the story of "Strange Fruit" brings together the life of the greatest jazz songstress of all time with the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, the history of left wing politics of the 1930's through the 1950's, the story of a landmark New York nightclub, and the mores of an exceptional era in the world of entertainment.

The book, written by an outstanding journalist, David Margolick (New York Times; Vanity Fair), is a fast and fascinating read. It is written with great sincerity and dedication. It is remarkably objective and fair to all the parties involved in this controversy-filled period of American life. It succeeds in re-evoking for the reader the overwhelming passion of "Strange Fruit." Audiences have been stunned time and again, and singers from Billie to Dee Dee Bridgewater have been overcome and reduced to tears, and have had to reserve singing it for times when the moment was right.

For the jazz aficianado, this book, from its powerful cover art to the various stories and anecdotes about Billie and her music, to the interesting photographs, will evoke stirring images of Ms. Holiday and the emerging jazz scene. It will also provide another link showing how modern jazz emerged in tandem with the Civil Rights movement, and how music can be a powerful political statement. It is "must" reading for all those who seek to know jazz in its historical context, and we can expect that the legions of Billie Holiday fans will want to have and avidly read this short but robust book about her, which also sets straight important aspects of the historical record.

Tags

comments powered by Disqus

Related Articles

Read The Universe and John Coltrane: The Physics of Cosmic Vibrations Book Reviews
The Universe and John Coltrane: The Physics of Cosmic...
by Victor L. Schermer
Published: January 18, 2018
Read Good Morning Blues Book Reviews
Good Morning Blues
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: January 11, 2018
Read Never Say No to a Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan, Sinatra, Jagger and More Book Reviews
Never Say No to a Rock Star: In the Studio with Dylan,...
by Nicholas F. Mondello
Published: January 2, 2018
Read Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz Festival Book Reviews
Music From Out There, In Here: 25 Years Of The London Jazz...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 20, 2017
Read The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums Book Reviews
The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums
by Roger Crane
Published: December 19, 2017
Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews
Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read "The Free Musics by Jack Wright" Book Reviews The Free Musics by Jack Wright
by Daniel Barbiero
Published: May 10, 2017
Read "All That's Jazz" Book Reviews All That's Jazz
by Phil Barnes
Published: December 6, 2017
Read "Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz" Book Reviews Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz
by Mark Corroto
Published: September 13, 2017