The United States has just come out of the Great Depression and people want to have a good time. Swing is at its peak in terms of popularity; Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, just to name a few, are treated like popstars.
And then in the midst of the collective euphoria in 1939, a black singer performs a song which is a manifest against racial discrimination and especially the killing of African Americans by lynchmobs. The song could not be more different to the “good times” music played mostly everywhere else. The oppressive feeling created by the lyrics and the melody is further aggravated by the setting in which the song is played. It is the last song of the set and there is darkness in the room except for a spotlight on the singers face. After the song the singer leaves the stage and there is no encore.
The song is obviously “Strange Fruit”, performed by Billy Holiday.
It took a lot of courage to play the song in the late thirties of the last century. Racial separation and discrimination was still very strong, not only in the south of the US. Billy Holiday had experienced it during her whole life. Very recently before, she had played in Artie Shaw’s orchestra, but after a short while she left the band because life for a black person in a white band was too complicated. Often she would not be able to stay in the same hotel as the other band members, had to use special stairs and elevators in hotels to get to the stage in order not to be seen by the white guests and she was sometimes asked to leave the stage when not singing.
Performing such song was only possible in very few places. In this case it was the “Cafe Society”, the first club in New York allowing a mixed audience. Also recording it was difficult, Holiday’s record label Columbia refused to do so, fearing reactions by record retailers in the South, as well as from the radio network. At least Columbia allowed Holiday a one-session release from her contract in order to record the song for Vocalion Records.
“Strange Fruit” was not the first protest song against racism performed by a Jazz musician, in 1929 Fats Waller had written “Black and Blue” already and Louis Armstrong had performed this song various times. But it was certainly the strongest protest so far by a Jazz musician.
In 1978 Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” was introduced in the Grammy Hall of Fame and in 1999 “Time” called it “Song of the Century”. Most recently, Kanye West sampled Holiday in “Blood on the Leaves” on his amazing record “Yeezus”.
There is a very interesting as well as touching background to the creation of the song, which can be found here.