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

Victor L. Schermer By

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Strange Fruit
David Margolick
Running Press
144pp. Photos

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.


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