The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 1

Karl Ackermann BY

Sign in to view read count
I was trying to make a home-made pistol. I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone. I didn’t know who…
—Nina Simone
In 1964, Civil Rights workers, known as Freedom Riders, were increasingly becoming the victims of violent attacks from the Ku Klux Klan as they initiated a program to register black voters in the Deep South. As members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the advocates were franticly racing against time in an effort to send representatives to the 1964 Democratic National Convention to push the party agenda toward a Voter's Rights Act. In his book Freedom Summer (Viking, 2010), Bruce Watson tells the story of how SNCC recruited the singer Harry Belafonte to help raise money for the cause. Belafonte, whose political beliefs were largely shaped by singer, actor and Communist activist Paul Robeson, had previously helped the group raise money for a March on Washington and he agreed to support them again. Belafonte's celebrity influence was considerable and it crossed color lines. As a regular New York City club performer he was backed by a band that included Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis, but Belafonte was well aware of the limits of his status in the South.

Belefonte raised sixty-thousand dollars and decided to travel to Greenwood, Mississippi himself to deliver the money. Nervous about making the trip alone, he enlisted his friend, the actor Sidney Poitier, to accompany him. The two arrived at night, in a single-engine propeller plane and were transferred to a car provided by members of SNCC. As they started their drive, three other cars that had been hidden and waiting in a corn field chased them through the maze of crops, repeatedly ramming their car. The pursuing cars were driven by Klansmen and only when Belafonte's car reached the Black section of Greenwood did the Klansmen retreat. Belafonte and Poitier were ushered into the local Elks hall and delivered the money to the waiting Civil Rights workers. Fearing another attack, the group decided to spend the night in the hall with two shotguns keeping watch at the doors and windows. The fear was rational; there had been seven murders of blacks and thirty black church burnings in the space of weeks; all were related to the SNCC efforts and none were a priority for the local police. What kept the small group from feeling even more isolated and threatened that night was music, as the advocates and Belafonte engaged in rounds of Civil Rights protest songs, some spontaneously created.

There is more than a dotted-line that connects the American Communist Party to the Civil Rights movement and the music associated with the movement's early days. The party was founded about 1919 as a splinter group, out of the Socialist Party of America. Largely made up of white European immigrants it nevertheless took on a significant and early role in the struggle against racism and the Jim Crow laws of the South. Black Americans had been shunned by the Socialist Party mainly because the organization was inextricably linked to labor unions that blatantly practiced discrimination in their hiring practices. In contrast, the Communist Party openly recruited disenfranchised blacks, mainly immigrants from the Caribbean countries, in the early days of the party.

By the 1930s almost two-million Southern blacks migrated north for industrial jobs in urban factories. This phenomena raised awareness of the American Communist Party among blacks north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line and their membership in the party swelled. But as a resistance movement, the relationship was hampered by widespread discrimination and the first phases of a national "Red Scare" that would reach its height with the rise of Joseph McCarthy's reign of intensified political repression and fear mongering. The fight against racism needed a broader channel of communication—something that the universal language of music could provide.

Strange Fruit

Considered by many to be the first important Civil Rights protest song, "Strange Fruit" is often thought to be a Billie Holiday composition. In fact, an unassuming New York City schoolteacher and loyal Communist Party member, Abel Meeropol, had written the song (originally as a poem titled "Bitter Fruit") in 1936. Meeropol was better known as the adoptive father of the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, following their parents' execution for espionage. Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Ecco, 2000) explains that Meeropol, a Civil Rights activist, did not have Holiday in mind at the time he penned the song. Meeropol had been driven by a shockingly graphic Lawrence Beitler photograph in the New York Post, showing the 1930 mob lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana; murders for which no one was ever convicted. Meeropol added music so that his wife could perform the song. He later shared the song with the singer Laura Duncan who performed it at Madison Square Garden. It had yet to reach the significant popularity that would come with Holiday's arrangement.

"Strange Fruit" was a milestone in Holiday's career and she was perceptive enough to capitalize on it, if not always in the most sound manner. Her troubled life led her to make claims about the song that simply weren't true. Chief among them was that Meeropol, upon hearing Holiday sing at a Harlem club, decided—on the spot—that he would set the poem to music for her; that she, in Holiday's own recollection, was the only singer that could do justice to his words. The urban myth never completely disappeared. As late as 1995, the Pulitzer Prize winning classical composer Ned Rorem inexplicably questioned Meeropol's legacy with no supporting evidence and almost ten years after Meeropol's death. In retrospect, it hardly mattered as Holiday would come to be inextricably linked to the song.

Café Society was the first integrated night club in the US. Holiday and her pianist Sonny White, having modified Meeropol's original musical arrangement, performed the song at the Greenwich Village venue in 1939 and the immediate audience reaction was stunned silence. Nevertheless, "Strange Fruit" quickly grew in popularity and became her regular closing number, complete with dramatic lighting and no encores. Recording the song was a different story. Holiday, under contract to Columbia Records, found her label flatly refusing to issue a recording for fear of offending its Southern distributors. A much smaller label, the Dixieland-oriented Commodore Records, produced the recording in 1939 and it sold more than one million copies.

The longevity and impact of the song is far reaching and timeless. Nina Simone recorded a stark, haunting version of the song on her album Pastel Blues (Verve, 1965) and she went on to become a lightning rod for those on both sides of the Civil Rights movement. Years later, Diana Ross, Sting and Jeff Buckley were among those who recorded the song along with instrumental versions from Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller. Time magazine selected "Strange Fruit" as the "Song of the Century" in 1999. The song's endurance and significance were highlighted once again in 2017 when vocalist Rebecca Ferguson, a second-place finisher on a British television music competition, X Factor, was asked to perform at the inauguration of the forty-fifth US President. According to CNN, Ferguson agreed with the following caveat, she would perform ..."if you allow me to sing 'Strange Fruit' a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States...then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington." Ferguson's invitation was withdrawn without comment as if to remind us that social attitudes in the US haven't changed as much as we would have hoped.

The Price of Protest: Nina Simone

A veteran of World War II, who fought in the Battle of Normandy and was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant, Medgar Evers went on to graduate from Alcorn State University in Mississippi where he was on the football and track teams, the debate club, sang in the choir, and was junior class president. The Evers family was prominent in the community and Evers brother, Charles, was the first African-American mayor elected in Mississippi. Medgar Evers worked to gain admission for African-Americans to the University of Mississippi following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation (Brown v. Board of Education). He also became an official in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), advocating for voting rights and other integration issues. Evers' widely publicized investigation into the 1955 lynching of fourteen year old Emmett Till brought him to national prominence and made him a revered protagonist in the Civil Rights movement and a prime target for segregationists.

Evers' views were in direct contrast to those of a sixty-thousand member network of white supremacist organizations known as the White Citizens' Councils (later called the Citizens' Councils of America). In his book Let the Trumpet Sound (Harper Collins, 1982), the author Stephen B. Oates describes the mission of the organization as written in a widely distributed flyer: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, sling shots and knives." In the early hours of June 12, 1963, Evers was gunned down on the front steps of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. The assassin—Byron De La Beckwith—was a member of White Citizens' Councils and though his guilt was not in question, it took the Mississippi courts thirty-one years to convict him. The Citizens' Councils of America still exists in 2017 and its manifesto was cited by Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine members of the Charleston, South Carolina, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, during their services in 2015.

Nina Simone's career was well-established in 1963. She had recorded a dozen albums including live performances at the Newport Jazz Festival, New York's Town Hall, The Village Gate, and Carnegie Hall. Civil Rights had not been part of her repertoire up to that point but 1963 was the year that pushed Simone into activism. In a matter of weeks, Evers' assassination was followed by the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls and blinding a fifth. By 1965, the FBI had determined that four known members of the Ku Klux Klan were the suspects but no prosecution was initiated for twelve years. Simone's reaction was visceral. In her autobiography I Put a Spell on You (co-written with Stephen Cleary) (Pantheon, 1992), Simone describes her initial reaction. ..."I was trying to make a home-made pistol. I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone. I didn't know who..." As irrational as her response may seem, Simone had quietly endured a struggle with mental health issues and the events of 1963 prompted a volatile reaction. She had been diagnosed as bipolar and suffered from depression; she had once shot and wounded a man and—in a separate incident—misfired trying to shoot another. In this case she channeled her anger into writing the first of several of her protest songs, "Mississippi Goddam," in less than one hour.

Simone performed the song during a series of three Carnegie Hall concerts in 1964 and later released the song on Nina Simone in Concert. It was Simone's debut of the Dutch label Philips Records following several successful years with Colpix Records, a Columbia Pictures—Screen Gems venture. The reaction to the song was mixed. Even while performing "Mississippi Goddam" to predominantly white audiences in New York's Village Gate and Carnegie Hall in 1964, the song was being banned in many Southern States. The ostensive rationale was the use of the word 'Goddam' but with lyrics that included Picket lines/School boycotts/They try to say it's a communist plot/All I want is equality, "Mississippi Goddam" created more than a few philosophical challenges in politically and racially charged South. Promotional radio copies of the single were smashed and sent back to Philips Records. Despite those challenges, Simone performed the song at the Selma-to-Montgomery march and it became a Civil Rights anthem.

In general, protest music of the 1960s had a diplomatic vibe about it, sometimes couching outrage in metaphorical language. Simone, the next door neighbor of Malcolm X in Mount Vernon, New York, breached the peaceful approach just as her neighbor had in rejecting the passive resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and calling for a more retaliatory response to racial injustice. But Simone's career was damaged by "Mississippi Goddam" and her enthusiasm for the movement waned after the 1968 assassination of King. From the perspective of the Civil Rights movement, Simone left off with 'Nuff Said (RCA Victor, 1968)—an album that included a reprise of the Civil Rights song "Backlash Blues." She left the US for Barbados and then Liberia before finally settling in Paris. Simone's assets evaporated and she played small venues for minimal pay still preferring that life to a return to the US. Simone died in southern France in 2003.

Before and after Simone's Civil Rights benchmark was established, other notable jazz figures had left their mark with recorded works of protest. Beyond Civil Rights, the Vietnam War was fertile ground among artists with a social conscious. In The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2 the contributions of Charles Mingus and Max Roach and more modern artists such as Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Noah Preminger and others will be explored.

Nina Simone: 'Nuff Said

Simone continued to release new studio material up until 1993's A Single Woman (Elektra Records) but with mixed success. Between 1964 and 1993, she had fewer than a half-dozen widely popular singles though I Put a Spell on You (Phillips, 1965) produced two of her most memorable releases; the title track and "Feeling Good" pushed the album into the Billboard Top 20 in the UK, but—signifying her diminished significance in the US—I Put a Spell on You just barely made it into the Top 100 in her native country.

Rather than a platform for her political activism, 'Nuff Said (RCA Victor, 1968) showed just how extensively Simone's influences were spread. The album included covers of two Barry Gibb (The Bee Gees) tunes, George Gershwin, Fletcher Henderson and the famous Rev. Thomas Dorsey spiritual "Take My Hand, Precious Lord." But in the midst of this weirdly eclectic mélange of styles and genres, Simone's most profound statement comes in the form of "Backlash Blues" written by Langston Hughes and Simone, friends and part of an activist group of Black intellectuals and artists.

Simone had recorded the song previously on Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA, 1967) but this version was recorded three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the visceral emotion of the twelve-bar blues piece plays out in lyrics such as "You give me second class houses/ And second class schools/ Do you think all colored folks/ Are just second class fools?." Rather than simply lamenting the state of Civil Rights, the song ends with a warning, "You're the one will have the blues not me/ Just wait and see."

Billie Holiday: Strange Fruit

As the original label indicates, the writing credit for "Strange Fruit" is attributed to Lewis Allan. The name was a pseudonym used by Abel Meeropol; not an uncommon practice for Communist party members at the time, though it is not clear that this was Meeropol's motivation.

The Greenwich Village club Café Society opened in 1938 and was the first fully integrated club in the US, though some—like the Cotton Club—occasionally bent their rules for Black "celebrities." The club would eventually host the likes of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis but in its first full year, it regularly capitalized on the talent of Billie Holiday. While her "Strange Fruit" performance was controversial, Café Society's owner, Barney Josephson, had a progressive, left-leaning agenda, one that would later cost him his club in the Communist targeting "Red Scare." He not only welcomed Holiday's performance of the song, but insisted that she close her shows with it.

Margolick's Strange Fruit... relates that having to continually perform the emotionally draining song sickened Holiday, singing it with her eyes closed and likely imagining the "Blood on the leaves and blood at the root/Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees." But as it became a staple of her act, Josephson gave the song itself, equal billing to Holiday. Less accepting of the song was Holiday's label, Columbia Records and her producer—the man who "discovered" her—John Hammond. Hammond flatly refused to allow Holiday to record "Strange Fruit" and Holiday sought another label.

A Harlem native of Austrian Jewish immigrants, Milt Gabler began working in his father's Manhattan radio shop as a teenager. When he took it over in the 1930s, he also shifted its business model, buying excess copies of recordings for resale. He was the first music seller to credit all the musicians who participated in a recording, and to sell records by mail. Holiday approached Gabler, offering his company—now rebranded as Commodore Records—the opportunity to issue "Strange Fruit." The record was a major success, putting Commodore on the map and leading to a partnership with the Decca label. Douglas Martin's New York Times obituary for Gabler (July 25, 2001) reported that the producer died with a single photograph of Holiday on his bedside table.

Post a comment


Shop Amazon


Jazz article: A Different Drummer, Part 5: Terri Lyne Carrington
Jazz article: A Different Drummer, Part 4: The Zildjian Legacy
Jazz article: A Different Drummer, Part 2: Royal Hartigan
Jazz article: The Rebel Festival
Under the Radar
The Rebel Festival


Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.