Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit.” The song has been called a declaration of war. The beginning of the civil rights movement. One of the ten songs that changed the world. The song’s lyrics describe a lynched Black man hanging from a poplar tree.
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.” In 1939, its performance sparked controversy — and sometimes violence — wherever Billie Holiday went. It was 16 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus. 25 years before Martin Luther King led the March on Washington. 60 years before Time magazine named it the best song of the century. We turn now to a new book called ??Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, cafe society, and an early cry for civil rights.
- David Margolick, author of ??Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, cafe society, and an early cry for civil rights. He is currently a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Prior to that, he was the National Legal Affairs Editor for the New York Times.