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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 1

Karl Ackermann By

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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

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