"Strange Fruit" Tells a Tragic Tale
Upper Valley to experience the raw power of Billie Holiday's most infamous song
More than 80 years after it was written, the song “Strange Fruit” continues to provoke mourning for and outrage against racial injustice. This month, actress Francesa Harper will recreate Billie Holiday’s haunting performance of “Strange Fruit” in JAG Productions’ upcoming performances of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” at The Engine Room in White River Junction (May 24-27), next at The Grange Theatre in Pomfret (May 31-June 3), and finally at Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center in Burlington, VT during Discover Jazz Festival (June 7-10). Producing Artistic Director Jarvis Green expects that the audience will be deeply touched by the performance. “Francesca is a force to be reckoned with. She is the perfect vessel for telling our version of this story and watching her transform into the role with such humility and grace is quite frankly a gift. People will be moved by the emotional depth and precision when she sings ‘Strange Fruit,’” he says.
“A Declaration of War”
Billie Holiday’s raw emotion coupled with the explosive nature of the piece created a song that has endured, Green explains. The song blatantly cries out against injustice in an era when people chose to be blind and deaf to racism. Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, described the song, “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement.” In 1999, TIME Magazine named “Strange Fruit” one of the 100 greatest songs, in part due to its political and social implications.
Abel Meeropol first wrote the poem “Strange Fruit” in the late 1930s after being deeply disturbed by a photograph of a lynching. The poem expresses his horror at the gruesome murders and at the jocular attitude of the crowd witnessing the event. According to NPR, Meeropol composed music for the piece and gave it to a nightclub owner who gave it to Billie Holiday. While Holiday made the song famous, her record label refused to record it, fearing retaliation from their southern audience. They briefly released her from her contract to record the song.
Singing a Eulogy
Given the song’s inflammatory nature, Holiday created rules about its performance. She sang “Strange Fruit” only at the end of her repertoire. The waiters were instructed to stop service during its performance, and all lights were turned off except Holiday’s single spotlight. Before singing it, she often paused and briefly closed her eyes. Afterward, she refused all requests for an encore.
“When I reflect on ‘Strange Fruit’ and Billie Holiday’s traditions around singing it - I think of it as a eulogy for everyone who was killed in this country for simply being black,” Green explains. “Through her performances of that song, not only do I believe she tapped into the trauma of black suffering, I believe her energy transformed these nightclubs into holy places to honor the victims.”
“The legacy of American racial terror lives on still today,” Green says. The southern trees might be bare of this “strange fruit,” but its bloody philosophical roots remain in this country. Green explains that the ideology behind lynchings – that the black body can be owned and disposed of – is visible in police brutality and mass incarceration.
Hinting at Healing
“In many of the community conversations surrounding this play -- most people only mention Billie Holiday’s legacy as a beautiful voice, and a great performer,” Green says, “but to fully honor her legacy one has to also recognize her activism and her resilience even through the oppression, pain, and suffering.” Holiday not only experienced life as a black woman during the era of Jim Crow politics, she also battled her own demons.
Most of her life, Holiday, a survivor of rape and prostitution, struggled with addiction. The play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill” recreates Holiday’s last performance, given to an audience of eight in a seedy Philadelphia nightclub. She died shortly afterward, only 44 years old, handcuffed to a hospital bed to prevent her from seeking narcotics. Even this darker side of Holiday’s life suggests a path to healing. Green explains that “what we can take away from Billie Holiday’s tragic life is that we have to take better care of each other as people and particularly care for black women.”