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The United States vs. Billie Holiday vs. the Truth

Despite what the movie says, there was no U.S. government conspiracy to suppress the landmark song “Strange Fruit”—and that’s just the biggest thing it got wrong

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Philadelphia Inquirer ad 1947
An ad from The Philadelphia Inquirer for Holiday’s engagement at the Earle Theater in May 1947 (courtesy of Lewis Porter)

Source of Misinformation

So where did this fictional government conspiracy come from? The movie is inspired by just a few pages of Johann Hari’s 2015 book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. He has never written about jazz before or since, and the book is not about Holiday, so he’s out of his depth. His footnotes show that he relies heavily on the 1987 biography by John White, which has long ago been superseded. He rightly cites the books by Julia Blackburn (With Billie, 2005) and Donald Clarke (Wishing on the Moon, second edition, 2000), but he is totally unaware of the authoritative and well-researched book by Stuart Nicholson, Billie Holiday (1995, due for re-release in 2022).

This passage in Hari’s book is the basis of Daniels’ entire film: “It was on one of these nights … that she started to sing a song that would become iconic … Lady Day was ordered by the authorities to stop singing this song. She refused. Her harassment by Harry [Anslinger]’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics began the next day.”

Note the lack of clarity about dates. Since we don’t know what date we’re talking about, how can we say that her harassment began “the next day”? Hari’s footnotes lead to no government archives, but only to another author with no background in jazz. Julia Blackburn, with whom I corresponded, is a very accomplished British author whom I admire. But she freely admits that she is a Billie fan, not a jazz historian. The point of her book, as she told me by email, was “to present a more rounded portrait of Billie,” not to fact-check specific historical events.

The section upon which Hari’s passage, and from there the movie, is based, is on her pg. 111: “She always claimed that ‘Strange Fruit’ was one of the reasons why she was hounded so fiercely by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the FBI. She said it was no coincidence that she defied an order not to sing it at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia and the next day was arrested on charges that eventually led to her imprisonment.”

But all of this is wrong. Holiday didn’t “always” claim this—to my knowledge, she never did. Nor did she get an “order” not to sing the song. All this derives from a complete misunderstanding of Blackburn’s one and only footnoted source­: an interview with Billie in the DownBeat of June 4, 1947, about her troubles with the law, the press, and audiences. Holiday is quoted saying, “I’ve made lots of enemies too. Singing that ‘Strange Fruit’ hasn’t helped any, you know. I was doing it at the Earle [Philadelphia] ’til they made me stop. [italics mine] Tonight they’re already talking about me.”

She never said, and never meant, that the government asked her to stop. The context shows that the last sentence refers to audiences talking, not authorities. Notice too that she said she was singing it “’til they made me stop.” It’s ridiculous to assume that the government suddenly forbade her to sing “Strange Fruit” after several nights at the Earle, and hundreds of other performances. It was the theater’s management (and/or audience members) who made her stop.

Why would the Earle’s manager, or audience, ask her not to sing “Strange Fruit”? Because from Friday, May 9 through Thursday, May 15, 1947 (most sources give wrong dates), Billie was part of a “family” show at the Earle. She was alternating sets with Louis Armstrong, various comedians, and Big Town, a B movie. (Like most big Eastern theaters, the Earle had integrated audiences but usually featured all-Black or all-white stage acts.) There were five showings of the movie each day starting at 11:15 a.m. Billie and Louis came on every three hours starting at 12:30 p.m., with their last show beginning at 9:30 p.m.

The Philadelphia Inquirer of May 10, 1947 reviewed the program:

The popular Billie croons a varied list that includes “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” “Solitude,” “Billie’s Blues,” “No Greater Love” and “Lover Man,” most of these being Billie hits.

There is more singing by Armstrong … in “I Believe” and “New Orleans” as well as his trumpet; Leslie Scott, a sepia Sinatra …; and hefty Velma Middleton … Slim and Sweets did a comedy turn. Myers and Walker proved agile singing and dancing comedians; there’s an [sic] xylophone in the act, too.

Can you imagine Billie performing “Strange Fruit” in such a setting? Even her devoted fans might have agreed that this was not the place.

When Blackburn wrote that the government ordered Holiday to stop singing “Strange Fruit,” that was based on her interpretation of “they made me stop.” It was not the result of research—no documents support it—and as I’ve shown, it happens to be wrong. Hari took it at face value, researched no further, and ran with it, and from there it got picked up by the makers of The United States vs. Billie Holiday, on which Hari is credited as an executive producer.

Blackburn further presents this passage that Holiday’s friend Dufty wrote in a 1956 letter to a lawyer about Lady Sings the Blues: “Billie has been kicked around and harassed for years by the authorities. One of the reasons is that this song ‘Strange Fruit’ made her well-known and politically controversial.”

That’s his theory—but where’s the proof? Dufty’s individual supposition, expressed privately, is in no way evidence that a government campaign actually happened. And even he never said that the government tried to stop her from singing the song.

Now let’s explore Hari’s other sources … oops, there are none! I emailed Hari and received only an automated reply, but Kevin Whitehead of NPR’s Fresh Air—the only journalist I know of who actually did some fact-checking on Daniels’ film—exchanged messages with Hari, who could produce no evidence other than what is noted in his book. In short, his lone source is Julia Blackburn, who, in her first entry into writing about jazz, misinterpreted a crucial statement by Holiday and threw in an immaterial letter by Dufty for good measure. Hari has nothing.

Hari also has a badly blemished record. Found to have plagiarized, he resigned from Britain’s The Independent in a major scandal in 2011 and later published “Johann Hari: A Personal Apology,” which you can still Google. Perhaps for this reason, he peppered Chasing the Scream with footnotes and even put audio clips from his interviews online. However, when one follows the footnotes (as we’ve just done) and checks the interviews against what’s in the book, they don’t always support his text.

What happened next? The makers of The United States vs. Billie Holiday asked themselves what it looked like when “the government” asked Holiday to stop (which, remember, never happened) at the Earle. They imagined that there must have been a line of local cops waiting to arrest her. They also dreamed up numerous other fictions.

Philadelphia Inquirer event listing 1947
An event listing from The Philadelphia Inquirer for Holiday’s engagement at the Earle Theater in May 1947 (courtesy of Lewis Porter)

Lack of Suppression

In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that not only was “Strange Fruit” not suppressed, but it was fairly well-known and even celebrated in some circles. Billie herself says in her book that the success of her original recording led to her moving from Commodore to a major label, Decca. Time magazine offered a short piece about it as early as June 12, 1939. An article that was syndicated in many papers on January 23, 1949, said: “…Her recording of ‘Strange Fruit,’ the weird minor-key lament of a Negro lynching, has become her virtual trademark.” And here is what the announcer says on her earliest surviving “live” radio broadcast of “Strange Fruit” (part of the Savory collection, unissued) in 1939, just after the recording was released: “Billie Holiday in person, singing the song that is driving swingsters crazy as they play it over and over on their phonographs. It has a very strange and haunting effect on most people. It’s ‘got’ me, so let’s see if it will ‘get’ you.” Hardly the way to introduce a banned number.

Holiday’s FBI file is a scant 10 pages entirely devoted to her arrest in San Francisco in February 1949. The only other government files on Holiday are the subsequent court records and the file from the prison itself. Nicholson went through all of these closely and found no reference to “Strange Fruit.” This is consistent with what other researchers have found regarding other artists. In general, the narcotics-related files from the ’40s and ’50s are solely concerned with drugs, whereas the political files are almost entirely devoted to rooting out Communists.

It was the composer of “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol, who attracted government interest, because of his activity in the Communist Party. During a 1941 New York State investigation of Communist infiltration into education, Meeropol was subpoenaed and asked, among other things, whether he had ever been paid by the Party to arrange a performance of “Strange Fruit.” (He said no.) His FBI file notes that he had presented the song at the Theatre Arts Committee, which they considered a “communist front.”

The Bureau of Narcotics was after Holiday not for her politics, but as a “role model” drug case. Its strategy was to pursue “high profile” users so as to discourage their fans from copying them. Her file explicitly says: “… [I]t has been the policy of this bureau to discredit individuals of this caliber using narcotics. Because of their notoriety it offered excuses to minor users.”

Anslinger didn’t only pursue Black artists. His agency’s most high-profile captures were Gene Krupa in 1943 and actor Robert Mitchum in 1948. Both were white, and neither was political. (Despite claims in Hari’s book, it’s not true that Judy Garland was treated gently because she was white, nor that she was using heroin. She was abusing prescription drugs—sleeping pills and amphetamines—not illegal drugs, so Anslinger had no case against her; he went after her doctors instead.)

Was there pushback against “Strange Fruit” from sources other than the government? Absolutely, but not anything organized or official. Sometimes it came from people—audience members, club owners, or radio DJs—who didn’t like the message. Sometimes it was from people who had no problem with the message, but felt it was out of place in their program of dance music, similar to what happened at the Earle. Sometimes it was from people who didn’t get the message and weren’t even sure what the song was about. David Margolick, author of the book Strange Fruit (2000), gives a number of examples of such situations, and confirms that the song was never formally “banned” anywhere. He also notes that, because of such incidents, Holiday’s performance contract from about 1949 onward stipulated that she must be allowed to sing it if she wanted to. If this is true, it’s yet more evidence that the government had not issued an “order” against it, and that Glaser, the manager who sent out those contracts, had no problem with it. Originally Published