'Strange Fruit' Documentary
April 8, 2003 10:35 AM   Subscribe

The Roots of a Haunting Song "Billie Holiday's brilliant interpretation of 'Strange Fruit' made the haunting song about Southern lynchings her own. It also helped make the composer, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, nearly anonymous. But Abel Meeropol (link contains image of lynching) gets his due in a documentary...airing [8 April] as part of PBS' 'Independent Lens' series..." (CNN)
posted by LinusMines (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
An article here too
posted by biffa at 10:47 AM on April 8, 2003

In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the best song of the century.
posted by kozad at 10:50 AM on April 8, 2003

I think the best version I've ever heard - and I've heard quite a few - is Robert Wyatt's. Certainly the best cover by a loveable old wheelchair-bound Stalinist, anyway. ;)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:54 AM on April 8, 2003

There's also an interesting book about it.
posted by Armitage Shanks at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2003

Cassandra Wilson did a great (and very, very dark) interpretation of "Strange Fruit" also, on "New Moon Daughter".
posted by troutfishing at 11:00 AM on April 8, 2003

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and a Cry for Civil Rights is an interesting book that explores the song in its historical context. I have always found it intriguing that Abel Meeropol was the adoptive father of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's sons.
posted by y2karl at 11:01 AM on April 8, 2003

Ah, Armitage, I missed your comment...
posted by y2karl at 11:03 AM on April 8, 2003

and there's always tricky's dark remix of it on verve remixed.
posted by grabbingsand at 11:04 AM on April 8, 2003

That really is a great song. Great links, all...
posted by plep at 11:07 AM on April 8, 2003

Is the song online?
posted by dgaicun at 11:20 AM on April 8, 2003

The "Best song of the century?" You've got to be kidding. "Strange Fruit" is an interesting historical curiosity, but the melody is only so-so, and lyrics are -- well, kind of odd. It's not much of a statement against lynching, consider that there had been a strong, vociferous, effective and explicitly political anti-lynching movement active since the early part of the century. Compared to their dedicated and courageous activism, "Strange Fruit" is a muted and offhand protest. With a different set of lyrics, no one would have remembered the tune. I had heard it a number of times before I knew what the lyrics were about or even paid much attention to them. It made no impact.
posted by Faze at 11:29 AM on April 8, 2003

It is a rather haunting melody, I remember I first heard it in a Jazz class I took in college and it was discussed at length there.

dgaicun - I had no problem pulling up the song on kazaa.

(A peer to peer program, get kazaa lite if you don't already have it.) http://www.kazaalite.nl/en/
posted by woil at 11:33 AM on April 8, 2003

Thanks woil, but I would prefer a quick link, if anybody knows of one. No pressure.

Another song about lynching was Irving Berlin's Suppertime.
posted by dgaicun at 11:50 AM on April 8, 2003

Faze, I applaud your ability to dispassionately analyze the song on the strictest technical merits, stripping it of all that unnecessary "context" and getting down to the details of lyrical coherence and complexity, the memorability of the hooks in the melody, and the empirical political consequences that resulted from its performance.

Speaking candidly, if I may, without being suspected of hyperbole or melodrama, I've listened to this recording four times in my life, with breaks of years in between each listening, and I can't name a song that I have more trouble listening to. It's a hard, unforgettable, chilling, deep curse of a performance. There's very little of love or anger in it; it doesn't preach or judge, it just portrays. More than anything, I think it's the most visceral, evocative song I've heard. That's it, I'm out of adjectives, who knew I was in such short supply.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 1:05 PM on April 8, 2003

I don't quite agree with Faze but he has a point--it's far from the greatest song of the past century, either musically or lyrically. It was, however, more important historically than he makes it out to be--it can be viewed now as insipid, as weak tea but in its time it broke ground.
posted by y2karl at 1:12 PM on April 8, 2003

I find it interesting that people are talking about dark covers. I mean really - how much darker can it get?

And how is it not explicit? I think it hits pretty hard, especially considering the Southern predilection for orchards.
posted by kavasa at 1:37 PM on April 8, 2003

Besides, everyone knows the best song of the century is "Karma Kameleon."
posted by five fresh fish at 1:39 PM on April 8, 2003

I actually agree with most of that, y2karl. I think the mere notion of the "best song of the century" is a ridiculous one for any number of reasons, and I think it's pretty easy to understand why Time granted this song that title. After all, at the time it was released, they managed to point out in their review not only that the song was cheap propaganda for the NAACP, but that Lady Holiday was overweight. And I do take issue with being curtly dismissive about the song. First off, we're not just evaluating a song, but a performance, and I think Billie Holiday's recording of Strange Fruit is its own incomparable creature. It's more than lyrics, instruments, pitch and a melody; it's a story and it's a statement, just like almost any piece of music, and on those terms, you can't give it a grade from A to F and pass it off.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 2:02 PM on April 8, 2003

Until just now I had no idea this song had ever been performed by anyone but Siouxsie and the Banshees. Given the context, it makes a lot more sense...
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:06 PM on April 8, 2003

I have Nina Simone's version but I can't listen to it without becoming angry...and sad. I can't think of any other piece of music that has such a gut-wrenching effect on me.
posted by black8 at 2:10 PM on April 8, 2003

I saw 'Strange Fruit' when it showed at the local International Film Festival last year. It's not bad -- there are some fine renditions of the song (the closing one is particularly good) and interviews with the likes of Pete Seeger. The song is kind of like a home position from which the film ventures out and explores the surrounding historical environment -- lynching; civil rights; the mid-century Jewish Left. It also deftly reveals the part Meeropol had in writing certain interesting footnotes to twentieth century history.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:49 PM on April 8, 2003

One thing that's always puzzled me about this incredible song - the poplar trees I know could barely support a sparrow.

Are the trees you know as "poplar" in your neck of the woods more likely to fulfil the horrible function described in the lyrics?
posted by emf at 3:58 PM on April 8, 2003

I have to second the vote for Nina Simone's version. It's the second to last song on her album Pastel Blues, the last song being the epic Sinnerman. In my opinion, those two songs are the strongest one-two punch in recorded history--Strange Fruit is the haunting and disturbing setup (and Nina howls in a strange and beautiful way throughout the track) and Sinnerman is the ten-minute catharsis, and is one of the few songs that could bend the knees of this atheist in prayer, if only to share in the wonderful energy that flows from Nina.

In case you haven't figured it out, I highly recommend this album.
posted by turaho at 6:35 PM on April 8, 2003

Thanks for the info Linus. I'm looking forward to the film.
posted by Juicylicious at 7:00 PM on April 8, 2003

i'm watching the show right now. it's brilliant.

as a young black man (dating a white woman), it's hard for me to watch it. it's very powerful.

what's funny is that i'd heard the term "strange fruit" growing up, but i had not known until today that there was a billy holiday song about it.

you know, sometimes you really have to wonder about this whole "heritage not hate" line the modern day "confederates" like to spout. seems like hate is a part of the heritage.
posted by lord_wolf at 7:14 PM on April 8, 2003

All I know is that the Cocteau Twin's version is better than the Tori Amos verison.
posted by gluechunk at 7:45 PM on April 8, 2003

The multimedia section of this page has the song.
posted by modofo at 8:02 PM on April 8, 2003

I didn't see your comment when I posted mine, grrarrgh00. I, in turn, agree with what you have to say in that and the one following.
It was very much the case of the singer, not the song.
posted by y2karl at 10:24 PM on April 8, 2003

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