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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.

EMINEM The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath/Interscope)

The unique thing about Eminem as an MC isn’t his skin color or even his twitchy delivery; it’s his misanthropy. He’s down for nobody, and nobody’s got his back. Understandable though this all-encompassing antagonism may be — the guy’s being sued by his mother, for chrissakes — it’s more disheartening than a dictionary’s worth of expletives. With the success of his major-label debut, nothing’s changed except the number of ducats in the pockets of his fat pants. He’s still white, still pissed-off, still potty-mouthed and perverse enough to make Howard Stern look like Burl Ives. He’s still rhyming over uncluttered beats from Dre and the Funky Bass Brothers, and he hasn’t started bragging about his Gucci loafers and the jeroboams of Cristal he laps out of them.

Instead, fame’s given Eminem more to worry about than his fellow playground snot-noses: Now he’s a scapegoat for the ills of American society. At least that’s how he sees it on The Marshall Mathers LP, and in song after song he refuses, commendably if disingenuously, to take the fall (“Don’t blame me if little Eric jumps off the terrace/You should’ve been watching him/Apparently you ain’t parents” he scolds on “Who Knew”). The rapper belittles hostile media and demanding fans with his best Mystikal growl on “The Way I Am.” But before you can enjoy his smart-ass reality checks too much, he’s gotta kick the harrowing shit. He invites his protégés in the Dirty Dozen to impersonate a psycho (“Amityville”) and rhapsodize over their drugs of choice (on the clunker “Under the Influence,” which serves as a handy A.A. commercial). Eminem may be on a mission from God to piss people off, but he also wants to have it both ways: There’s one word he won’t use (hint: It starts with an n); meanwhile, the vicious threats of “Kill You” end with the equivalent of “and then I woke up.” Things don’t turn really ugly, though, until he starts impersonating a man murdering his unfaithful wife — punctuated by the victim’s pitiful pleading and terror-filled screams. “Kim” (named after his wife) forms a sort of prequel to the Slim Shady cut “’97 Bonnie & Clyde.” But while that song was darkly comic and inventive, “Kim” is just plain unlistenable. The issue of violence against women is moot: If it were Missy Elliott wreaking revenge-fantasy havoc on an unfaithful boyfriend, it’d still be reprehensible.

Not that Eminem’s lost his touch — one listen to the ubiquitous anthem “The Real Slim Shady” should convince you of that, as will the ironic “Criminal” and the bluntly sentimental, 45 King–produced “Stan.” It just isn’t as much fun this time around, no matter how fresh Dre’s beats are or how many worthy targets get shot down along with the innocent. (Jackie McCarthy)

 

DOLLY VARDEN The Dumbest Magnets (Evil Teen)

Loath as I am to admit liking anything that emanates from Nashville (a dreadful place that brings out the worst in almost everyone), Chicago’s Dolly Varden has beaten the odds and fashioned a first-rate disc that skillfully avoids the usual “alt-country” pitfalls by having substantial songs and people to sing them (the husband-wife team of Steve Dawson and Diane Christiansen, formerly of regional alt-country faves Stump the Host). Beginning with “Apple Doll,” a gorgeous tune that revels in understated simplicity — beautifully arranged guitars, glockenspiel and marimba, and close spousal harmonies — The Dumbest Magnets is a delicately produced gem that has nothing to do with any of the current alt-country rubbish. “The Thing You Love Is Killing You” offers a sweet Gram Parsons–Emmylou Harris blend and seems to reflect the band’s sentiments about the business of music (i.e., years of failed negotiations with a number of major labels). Still, it’s reassuring that anyone can turn such a miserable experience into such an unassuming and guileless tune. Elsewhere, the title track adds ethereal Mellotron string parts, “Some Sequined Angel” recalls the spirit (and guitar work) of Richard and Linda Thompson, and the buoyant rocker “I Come to You” has a Hollies lilt. In particular, special kudos to Mark Balletto for stellar and inventive guitar playing throughout.

The third release from Dolly Varden (the name refers to a spotted Northwest trout, a character from Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge or a bad play on one of our favorite country singers) shows another major step forward. Who knows, maybe all the major-label snafus were for the best. (Michael Lipton)

KOTTONMOUTH KINGS High Society (Capitol)

As the band name implies, Kottonmouth Kings are the most cannabis-worshiping band of all time, and 20 tracks singing the praises of THC sounds like it might hassle even Bob Marley’s buzz. The good news is that while High Society may have a few stems and seeds, that’s still no reason to dismiss Orange County’s illest.

Like a cross between Insane Clown Posse and Kid Rock, High Society almost never varies from that heady morass of bass, synth and guitar lazily mushed together. Thudding kick drum and crispy snare are usually a good thing, but Kottonmouth need to bring in a few embellishments besides those ’80s synth squiggles. “Face Facts” changes up the mix some, but those two-tone reggae keyboards and steel-drum ricochets are as irie as the Kings be gettin’. The only time these Fubu-wearing snowballs lose their sense of humor is on “Anarchy Through Capitolism,” a rather ass-kissy nod to their label, Capitol Records (marketable rebellion is one of those ideas that makes beautiful sense when you’re baked). “King’s Blend” would be cool if it weren’t such a public-service announcement: “King’s blend, taster’s choice/I know you’re real high when you hear my voice.” We know, it’s not dope you put in a pipe, it’s dope for your eardrums blah, blah, blah. Rounding out these weed-friendly anthems is “Coffee Shop,” a colorful ode to Amsterdam, the stoner’s paradise and K.K.’s second home.

The main wack thing is when these suburbanite MCs try to kick it ghetto-ebonics, which only makes more obvious what a bunch of middle-class white punks raised on a steady diet of Cypress Hill they really are. Even so, while they’ll never be regarded as a serious hip-hop crew, Kottonmouth Kings are still the funkiest pro-legalization rally rhymers around. (Andrew Lentz)

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