Many know the African American Artist Billie Holiday for her calmingly raspy, soulful, and mellow alto voice. Many also know her for her fame in Europe and impact as a female artist during the 1930’s-50’s. But her impact as an activist often goes unnoticed. Holiday was not the first protest singer of her time, nor would she be the last Black artist to speak about the injustices against Black people in the world but her rendition of Strange Fruit marked a transition in Black music and helped shape what is now known as a Protest Song. Strange Fruit sadly still resonates today, as America has progressed little in the treatment of minorities, and it is the pungent lyrics, combined with Holiday’s deep and enchanting voice that will forever stoke the fire of change.
On April 7, 1915, Eleanora Fagan was born to unmarried parents Sarah Julia Fagan and Clarence Holiday. Not long after her birth, Clarence, in pursuit of a career in Jazz, abandoned his family. This left Sarah, who was later kicked out of her parents’ house for getting pregnant, alone with an infant As the child of a single parent family, young Eleanora suffered from the absence of her mother, who often took traveling jobs that required long trips away from her daughter. Eleanora often skipped school which resulted in the sentencing of Catholic reform school after a hearing before a juvenile court at nine years old. By age 11, after her release, Eleanora had dropped out of school to work. On December 24, 1926, Eleanora’s mother walked in on their neighbor attempting to rape her. After he was arrested, Eleanora was again sent to a reform school. Upon her release, Eleanora found work doing menial tasks and errands in a brothel at age 12. Holiday sites this time as her introduction to jazz, she became acquainted with Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong records. At age 14 she moved to Harlem to be with her mother who was already working in their landlady’s brothel, within days Eleanora was also working for $5 a client. Less than Less than 5 months later her and her mother were arrested and sent to prison.
Holiday began her career singing in Harlem nightclubs. Her stage name, Billie Holiday, was taken from Billie Dove, an admired actress, and her father, Clarence Holiday. From 1929 to 1931, she sang with her neighbor Kenneth Hollan, a tenor saxophone player. They performed together in several night clubs in New York allowing Holiday to meet Charles Linton and connect with her father. As her reputation grew she separated from Hollan and at 17 she replace the singer at the famous Covan’s Club In 1933 Holiday was discovered by John Hammond who arranged for her to record her debut “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch”, the latter becoming her first hit.
Holiday signed with Brunswick Records in 1935. For three years she took “pop” tunes and recorded them in a new swing style for the growing jukebox trade. Holiday, along with Teddy Wilson, took tunes like “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” and turned them into jazz classics. By her twenties, her recordings with Wilson and by herself were regarded as important pieces in the jazz vocal library. The record label wasn’t able to afford the recoding of many jazz tunes. To ensure the records they produced were cheap and to cut down on costs, Holiday and other musicians would improvise as they performed rather than have written arrangements. One of the most famous hits, “I Cried for You”, sold 15,000 copies.
While Holiday performed briefly with Count Basie as their big-band vocalist she was considered to be in direct competition with singer Ella Fitzgerald. Despite this competition, the two jazz divas later became friends. Though traveling conditions were poor and they performed many one-nighters in clubs, Holliday managed to develop he persona of a woman plagued with unrequited love, singing songs like “I Must Have That Man”, “Travelin’ All Alone” and other love songs. Holiday, after complaing of low pay and poor working conditions and refusing to sing requested songs, was later fired from Basie for being “unprofessional, temperamental, and unreliable”.(Nicholson)
A month after she was fired, Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw. This meant Billie was one of the first Black women to work with a white orchestra and was the first Black female singer employed by a white bandleader to tour the segregated south. There was a lot of racial tension singing with them but Shaw made sure to stick up for his vocalist. Holiday was often heckled by audience members or denied seating with the other vocalists because she was Black. The racial differences of traveling with an all White band became too much for Holiday, so soon Holiday left Shaw’s band, but not after making a name for herself as an artist.
Hits sung by holiday include, “Summertime” from the musical Porgy and Bess, “Fine and Mellow”, “God Bless the Child”, and “Strange Fruit”. Holiday was also famous for her song “God Bless the Child”, which reached 25 on the charts in1941 and was 3rd in Billboard’s sings of the year. Later in 1976, it was added into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
In 1946 Holidays starred, with Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman, in her only film New Orleans. On set, Holiday’s drug addictions became a problem. Her lover Joe Guy, who was later banned from set, was her heroin supplier while filming. Holiday was arrested in 1947 for possession of narcotics and sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp. After her release, Holiday performed at Carnegie Hall and had a brief three-week stint on Broadway. Holiday’s earnings depleted after being blacklisted from any club that sold alcohol in New York. By the 50’s, Holiday’s relationships with abusive men, drinking and drug abuse had caused her health to deteriorate and he voice to grow coarse and lose is vibrancy.
Holiday died while being treated for cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease in the Metropolitan Hospital in New York. She was arrested for drug possession and cuffed to her deathbed while her room was raided and she was placed under police guard. She died at the age of 44 on July 17th,1959. Holiday died with $0.70 dollars in the back and $750 on her person. She was buried in the Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. Though Holiday died alone and feeble, her fiery spirit, the beauty in her voice and her courage to change the world with her voice lives on in every rendition of “Strange Fruit” that is created. As for the song “Strange Fruit” unfortunately still holds truth as Black bodies drop like over-ripened fruit on a daily basis. The symbol is still just a shocking, and still calls attention to the way Black people are treated. Holiday leaves a legacy of pain and triumph behind her, similar to that of any activist. Though she struggled with the world around her, the impact she made with her talent is unmatched.
A protest song is one that is associated with a movement for social change. Stylistically it is usually a folk, classical, spiritual, or pop song that is connected to a current event. Dating a far back as the 18th century, protest songs have made a lasting impact on the fabric of the United States. During the 20th century, protest songs transitioned from topics of slavery, abolition, poverty, and civil war efforts to topics like women’s rights, civil rights, and economic justice. Songs like “We Shall Overcome”, “A Change is Gonna Come”, By Sam Cooke, Ain’t GOnna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round”, “Lit Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, by James Weldon Johnson, “This Little Light of Mine” and “We shall not be Moved” are all songs that shifted the atmosphere of the country during the civil rights movement.
One of the most famous protest songs of the 20th century, specifically in the civil rights movement was Strange Fruit. As it was first performed sixteen years before Rosa Parks famously and bravely refused to give her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus, which incited the largest bus boycott in the nation, “Strange Fruit was “a declaration of war…the [true] beginning of the civil rights movement”. Sung by Billie Holiday, who used her talent and its striking lyrics to inform the world about the injustices Black people faced during segregation, “Strange Fruit” shook the nation to its very core and transformed the way music was seen and experienced forever.
During the 20th century, nearly 2,000 people were recorded to have been lynched, with a Black person as 3 out of every 4 that were killed. Lynching had reached a peak in the south during the turn of the century and created unrest within the United States. This unrest is what inspire the song “Strange Fruit”. Originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish-American schoolteacher and songwriter, “Strange Fruit” was a outcry against the lynching of Black Americans. The poem was inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. The poem was published under the title “Bitter Fruit” 7 years after the lynching. Meeropol set the poem to music, titling it “Strange Fruit” and the original vocalist was his wife. His song was successful in New York, performed by vocalist Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden. In 1999, Time magazine dubbed “Strange Fruit” as the “Best Song of the Century” and in 2002, the Library of Congress chose to honor the song by including it as one of 50 recordings added to the National Recording Registry that year. The song was sung by various artists like Nina Simone, who popularized it during the civil rights movement , Jeff Buckley, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Rene Marie. “Strange Fruit” was preformed was most famously by Billie Holiday, who recorded in in 1939.
The song “Strange Fruit” was controversial in nature, its lyrics paint a daunting image of Black bodies hanging trees after being lynched. These bodies, undeserving of such a gruesome death, are the “strange fruit” the song and poem symbolize. The poem also mentions that these lynchings happen far too often, dubbing it a “scene of the gallant South”. Holiday bravely sang this song, her fear of opposition was overshadowed by imagery of the song and its resemblance to her father’s death. The first time she performed the song, it was the closing of her set. The whole café was in darkness except for a spotlight on her as she sang with closed eyes, postulating that of prayer. The room went dark with the last note and when the lights came up, she was gone.
Holiday’s producer at the time refused to record the song, the label fearing rejection from sellers in the South. Opposition did not stop her and once released in 1939, “Strange Fruit” sold over a million copies despite getting no airplay, becoming Holiday’s biggest selling record. “Strange Fruit” became a part of Billie Holiday’s reputation, she had formed a relationship so deep that her and the song were inseparable. For 20 years Billie sang this song, touring the country and later taking it to Europe. Though it was not the first, “Strange Fruit” made waves as a protest song, forcing people to acknowledge the injustice and gruesome deaths of Black people in the South. Holiday gained popularity and continued to spread its message with every eerie note she sang. She fought racism with her gift until the day she died.
Billie Holiday Sings (1952)
An Evening With Billie Holiday (1952)
Billie Holiday (1954)
Stay with Me (1955)
Music for Torching (1956)
Velvet Mood (1956)
Lady Sings the Blues (1956)
Body and Soul (1957)
Songs for Distingué Lovers (1957)
Lady in Satin (1958)
Last Recording (1959)
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Margolick, David, and Hilton Als. Strange Fruit : Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Philadelphia, Running Press, 2000.
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Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism : Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York, Pantheon Books, 1999.
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