Apr 18, 2016

Billie Holiday's Strange, Beautiful Fruit

by Kael Moffat

William P. Gottlieb's iconic portrait of Billie Holiday, taken at the famous Downbeat Club in New York, 1947  (image from the Library of Congress, Public Domain)
Billie Holiday's 1959 New York Times obituary claimed that the Baltimore native was "more influential than...almost any other jazz singer, except the two who inspired her, Louis Armstrong and the late Bessie Smith." (1)  In the decades since her passing, this evaluation of her career still holds true.  Holiday's career spanned just thirty years (1930-1959), a relatively short period for jazz artists, but her impact is still felt today. (2)  Cassandra Wilson, herself a living jazz legend, claimed that Holiday's approach to singing was "the beginning of the jazz vocal age." (3)  

Cassandra Wilson (image by Scott Penner from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)
Holiday was born April 7, 1915 and moved to New York with her mother in 1929.  She was never formally trained, so her voice always had a kind of plainness and innocence that connected with members of the audience so deeply that many of her admirers almost felt as if she were singing just to them.  In a very real sense, her bluesy, sometimes slightly off-pitch voice was more expressive than more polished singers of her time.  I'm thinking, for example, of a famous contemporary act, the Andrews Sisters, who were known for their peppy, tight arrangements that were "hits," but meant to take audiences minds off the struggles of their lives.  (4)  Holiday's approach, on the other hand, was to confront the messiness of life and find dignity in the struggle.  Her music was not an escape, but an acknowledgment and a wrestling with the scramble of everyday living.

What made Holiday such an influential artist is the fact that she approached singing in the same way that great soloists like trumpeter Louis Armstrong, pianist Count Basie, and saxophonist Lester Young (one of Holiday's closest friends until they had a falling out just a couple years before both of them passed away).  Though she stayed true to the lyrics of the song, she regarded the notes and the rhythms of the lyrics open to interpretation, subject to the particular mood of the performance and her emotional state.  Sometimes, she would sing on the beat, but she often sang slightly behind the beat to create and release tension, the way an instrumentalist stretches time and snaps it back for effect.  By taking this approach, her performances offered an incredibly intimate expression of her deepest sense of self as an artist, as an African American, and as a woman.  Even now (even especially now), she is most admired for her emotional honesty.  

One of Holiday's greatest songs was "Strange Fruit," an incredibly rich and understated protest about the unbearably cruel treatment of African Americans in the South.  In the Thirties, Fourties, and Fifties lynching was still an every-day fact of life in a region that had not been able to let go of it's violently racial heritage.  The song was originally written by Abel Merropol, a Jewish New York school teacher who was appalled by the racial violence in America.  He published the lyrics as a poem and later set it to music with the help of his wife.  Holiday was introduced to the song two years after its publication and recorded it in 1939 and again in 1944. (5)

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies 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 magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop. (6)
Here's a clip of Holiday's version of the song:

Cassandra Wilson, has also recorded a rather haunting version of the song:

Holiday's impact on her listeners was memorialized in John O'Hara's poem on her death, "The Day Lady Died," which is a play on her nickname, Lady Day:
It is 12:20 in New York a Friday 
three days after Bastille day, yes 
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine 
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton   
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner 
and I don’t know the people who will feed me 

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun   
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy 
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets   
in Ghana are doing these days 
                                                        I go on to the bank 
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)   
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life   
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine   
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do   
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or   
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine 
after practically going to sleep with quandariness 

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and   
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue   
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and   
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton 
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it 

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of 
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard 
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing (7)

1. http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0407.html
2. Ellis Marsalis, pianist and father of world-renowned Wynton and Branford Marsalis, has an active career that spans all the way back to the 1940s.  Wynton Marsalis, by the way, is still the only person to have ever won Grammy Awards for best classical and jazz albums in the same year (1989).
3.  http://www.npr.org/2015/04/05/397321378/cassandra-wilson-couldnt-wait-to-reinvent-the-billie-holiday-songbook
4.  This is not to entirely dismiss the Andrews Sisters.  They were fantastic vocalists and high-caliber musicians and their recordings still hold up very well.  In fact, contemporary vocal groups could still learn a thing or two from them.
5.  In the jazz and blues world, re-recording songs is not all that unusual.  Some contemporary rock/pop singers do it as well.  Sting, for example, has recorded "Shadows in the Rain" as a member of The Police (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FR2TAdDiOC) and as a solo artist (https://youtu.be/H2h8ZqMe0TY).
6. http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/fruitholiday.html
7. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/42657

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