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Strange Effects 

The truthful way of Billie Holiday

Wednesday, May 31 2000
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In his 1972 Diana Ross–as–Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, Sidney Furie got “Strange Fruit” all wrong. Holiday wanders off a bus, stumbles on a lynching and covers her face in terror. Furie then cuts to the performance: Holiday with a gardenia in her hair, singing words that turn the lynching scene into a stark poem of subdued gothic terror.

The problem was not just what these scenes implied (that Holiday, not Abel Meeropol, wrote the song) but what followed them: Holiday singing the words, ending as she always did by bending those final notes around “bitter crop,” and that’s it. We see no audience reaction and are given no moment to register what kind of musical, social and psychological transformation has just occurred because one woman sang one song on the stage of Café Society. The film elided what is arguably the defining characteristic of “Strange Fruit,” its effect. Indeed, “Strange Fruit” has historically derived so much of its power and intensity not only from its performance by Holiday, but from the raw, emotional truths embedded in the reactions of its listeners — their shock, their silence, their paralysis.

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David Margolick has written a new book about this song and its singer, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Running Press), which as its title suggests aims to be a chronicle of Café Society racial radicalism and pre-civil-rights-movement musical revolution. Read it and you’ll see that every so often Margolick actually does write a book that chronicles what the title describes — and when he does, it’s not so interesting (this is partly because two other books have recently done a more substantive job with the same topic: Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front and Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminism). The book that Margolick really writes, the more interesting one, is a history of “Strange Fruit”’s reception. Over and over again, he replays different versions of the scene that should have been in Lady Sings the Blues: when the stage went dark, when Holiday did not return for a bow, when the audience sat stunned, quiet, in awe and reverie, nobody speaking, nobody applauding, nobody sure of what they had just experienced.

“A moment of oppressively heavy silence followed,” the Apollo Theater’s Jack Schiffman tells Margolick of Holiday’s performance there, “and then a kind of rustling sound I had never heard before. It was the sound of almost 2,000 people sighing.”

Margolick is less a critic or a song historian here and more of an emotional curator, an organizer of politicized sentiment, a choreographer of musical affect. The book is an assemblage of reactions (including individualized remembrance sections set off from the text) that only secondarily string together the song’s history of composition and influence. Under most circumstances this might prove a novel though tiresome exercise, but this is “Strange Fruit,” this is black bodies swinging from poplar trees in 1939, this is the “pastoral scene of the gallant South” made into a horrorscape the same year as the release of Gone With the Wind, this is “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,” the juxtaposition of sweet magnolia and burning flesh. This is a song that, because of its graphic and explicit anti-lynching politics and because of its performance by Holiday, provokes only intense, urgent and vivid reactions. Every response to “Strange Fruit” in Strange Fruit has its own poetry:

Vernon Jarrett: “I once heard ‘Strange Fruit’ while I was driving and I tried to park the car, out of respect for her — just to let her voice sink in.”

Samuel Grafton: “Even now, as I think of it, the short hair on the back of my neck tightens and I want to hit somebody. And I think I know who.”

Margolick’s thorough compilation of these memorable remembrances turns Strange Fruit into a document of the silence — the staggering inarticulation — that great art can produce. He shows us how one song can make so many different listeners have nothing to say precisely because it makes them want to say so much.

I am reminded of this whenever I teach “Strange Fruit” to my students (I use my favorite recording, the live one from 1946’s Jazz at the Philharmonic). Most of them have never heard it before, and watching their reactions only gives me a hint of what it must have been like to see Holiday do it in person at Café Society or at one of those early Harlem parties that first got people buzzing about it.

After the song ends, no one is breathing, and minutes pass before anyone can begin talking about it. No matter how smart the observations my students might have, it’s those first minutes of silence that speak the loudest. They affirm what is perhaps Margolick’s central claim, that “Strange Fruit” was never actually a song. It was, and forever will be, an event.

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