Billie's Witness to Black History

According to the Tuskegee Institute, from 1882 to 1968 there were at least 4,743 vigilante executions by lynching. Nearly three-fourths of the mutilated corpses were black, and most of the public celebrations that attended the lynchings took place in the South. The Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights (Greenwood Press) adds that from 1881 through 1927 at least 39 blacks were burned alive.

On April 20, 1939, Billie Holiday recorded a song, “Strange Fruit,” by a schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, who wrote under the name of Lewis Allan. To Americans of a certain age, the name Meeropol is known in another context: He adopted the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after they were executed for espionage.

At the time, and since, many people thought Billie had written the song because she possessed it, and it possessed her. As I write, without putting the record on, I hear her bringing back that “pastoral scene of the gallant South/the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” And for those who have seen the current book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (Twin Palms Publishing), Billie provides a bitter obbligato to the cheering, smiling mobs, including children who were let off from school for these memorable occasions. (“Strange Fruit” is still available in Billie Holiday: The Complete Commodore Recordings, GRP/Verve)

Actually, Billie wrote only a few songs. As Doretta Lonnett Whalen writes in A Sociological and Ethnomusicological Study of Billie Holiday and Her Music, the way her 18 songs, like “Fine and Mellow” and “Don’t Explain,” came into being was, as she put: “I get a story and then I get ahold of Arthur Herzog and he straightens out the lyric and I have another friend to whom I hum what I have in mind and he takes it down for me.” Despite its title, Whalen’s exploration of Billie’s life and music—a doctoral dissertation for the University of Pittsburgh—should find a publisher because it’s so clearly written and brilliantly researched.

A recently published book, David Margolick’s Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Running Press) is also an exemplary work of investigative journalism, chronicling not only the odyssey of the song but of Billie herself. Some skeptics in the book doubted that Billie understood the horrifying depth of the lyrics, but journalist Harry Levin tells of Billie, after work, singing “Strange Fruit” in the Greenwich Village apartment of Arthur Herzog: “Her eyes were closed tightly. We were virtually paralyzed as she pulled us into physical contact with every word and gesture of ‘Strange Fruit.’ We sat stunned, silent, not daring to look at one another.”

I knew Billie. She understood everything she sang—from seductively wayward lovers to the sly wit of her romantic improvisations with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. (I wish I’d had a tape recorder the night, at a mutual friend’s apartment, when she pungently imitated various big-time bookers and recording executives.) As for “Strange Fruit,” like just about every black American, she had a lot of stories about her intimate knowledge of Jim Crow. So it was, as Margolick quotes Jack Schiffman, son of the owner of the Apollo Theater, about when she sang “Strange Fruit” there, “A moment of oppressively heavy silence followed, and then a kind of rustling sound I had never heard before. It was the sound of almost two thousand people sighing.”

I didn’t know until I read this book that Norman Granz felt compelled to launch his relentless campaign to desegregate jazz audiences because Billie told him of how she felt when her black friends were barred from her appearance at the Trouville Club in Los Angeles. In addition to separating the myths and the facts behind Billie’s association, including beyond her death, with “Strange Fruit,” the book illuminates a great deal about, as the academics put it, the sociological textures and interpersonal rhythms of the jazz scene in Billie’s time. For instance, John Hammond, who discovered Billie and was so vital a force in the history of jazz, could also be obtusely self-righteous, as when he scorned Billie’s involvement with “Strange Fruit” as making her “the darling of the left-wing intellectuals.” Who were those 2,000 people sighing at the Apollo?

In a former life, David Margolick covered legal news for The New York Times, enlivening cases and controversies with quick takes on the personalities involved. Here he has the astuteness to quote clarinetist Tony Scott comparing Billie with Ella Fitzgerald: “With a singer like Ella, when she sings ‘my man has left me,’ you think the guy’s going down the street for a loaf of bread. But when Lady sings it, man, you see the bags are packed, the cat’s going down the street, and you know he ain’t never coming back.”

Originally published in July/August 2000

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