“Strange Fruit” (1939) Billie Holiday
Composed by “Lewis Allan” (Abel Meeropol); informally arranged by Danny Mendelsohn. Piano prologue suggested by Milt Gabler.
Recorded by Billie Holiday and Her Orchestra for Commodore Records on April 20, 1939 in New York.
Billie Holiday, vocal, directing: Frankie Newton, trumpet; Talmadge “Tab” Smith, alto saxophone; Stan Payne and Kenneth Hollon, tenor saxophones; Ellerton “Sonny” White, piano; John Williams, bass; Jimmy McLin, guitar; Eddie Dougherty, drums.
The disturbing polemical song “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by New York teacher, writer and political activist Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler‘s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol had asked others to set his poems to music, he eventually set “Strange Fruit” to music himself.
Meeropol’s song was performed fitfully around New York before 1939, but it really got little traction until Billie Holiday came into contact with it. The story of how that happened, and indeed of the creation of the song itself, have their genesis in the New Deal America of the late 1930s.
Left-wing political thinking was alive, well, and remarkably robust in Manhattan in the late 1930s. One must remember, that this was a decade before the postwar “Red” hysteria, triggered by the World War II ally of the U.S., that was then called the Soviet Union, the U.S.S.R., or just plain Russia, surreptitiously obtaining the American nuclear secrets and developing their own atomic bomb. Very suddenly, American euphoria, which had resulted from winning the War and being the only nation with nuclear weapons, was replaced by fear and fear-mongering, which found its apotheosis in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s hunt for “Reds” (communists), in the U.S. government, and elsewhere. (The Hollywood film industry was especially hard-hit by McCarthyism.) The full story of what happened during the McCarthy era, and why, has been told in countless books, movies and plays.
But in the 1930s, especially in New York City, ideas that came from communist political theory, found expression in many ways and many places. For example, John Hammond (1910-1987), who is now well known as having been a pioneering jazz talent scout, advocate for racial integration, and jazz impresario, was as close to being a communist as was possible without actually carrying a Communist Party USA membership card. He even went to Soviet Russia in 1935 to see for himself what was going on there. Hammond’s biographer Dunstan Prial did a good job of unraveling the tangle that was Hammond’s political orientation in the 1930s: “It would have been easy to assume that in the mid-1930s (Hammond) was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. He wrote for left-leaning magazines,he traveled in progressive circles,and he was affiliated with numerous liberal causes. He had traveled to Kentucky to help striking miners organize a union, and he was outspoken in his defense of the Scottsboro boys, whose defense costs were in large part underwritten by the American Communist Party. So it’s fair to say that he held common ground with he Communists on many of the leading social issues of the day. What kept him distanced from the Communists was the party’s position on racial integration, Hammond’s most cherished cause. The Communists wanted to create a new country for blacks somewhere in the southwestern United States. Moreover, he knew equality among the races was secondary to their primary goal of overthrowing capitalism. The party leaders in the United States weren’t shy about manipulating the race card to further that agenda.” (1) Hammond indeed was, unequivocally and unapologetically, a crusader for racial equality. He joined the board of trustees of NAACP in the mid-1930s, and for many years was one of its most aggressively pro-integration members.
But whether Hammond was a communist himself or not was really irrelevant to his attitudes, and those of many other left-leaning people in New York in the 1930s. Those attitudes overlapped in many respects with ones espoused by the Communist Party USA, and no one was the least bit troubled by that. It should be noted that the From Spirituals to Swing Concert staged by Hammond at Carnegie Hall on December 23, 1938, was sponsored by The New Masses, a Marxist magazine closely associated with Communist Party USA. In the program for the event, advertisements for Victor and Bluebird Records were included along with ones for the Workers’ Book Store and Soviet Film Productions.
John Hammond first encountered Billie Holiday in Harlem in 1933. He was 23 and Billie was 18. This meeting took place at Monette Moore’s, a small bar on 133rd Street. Here is how he described her: “She was not a blues singer, but she sang popular songs in a manner that made them completely her own.She had an uncanny ear, an excellent memory for lyrics,and she sang with an exquisite sense of phrasing.She always loved Louis Armstrong’s sound, and it is not too much to say that she sang the way he played. Further, she was absolutely beautiful, with a look and bearing that were indeed Lady-like, and never deserted her, even in the degraded final years. I decided that night that she was the best jazz singer I had ever heard.” (2) Over a period of time, Hammond followed her as she moved from joint to joint in Harlem, and lived in a most meager fashion off tips and the small salaries she was able to earn at these marginal establishments. “I came to know her better, and as I did, I discovered that her beauty surpassed her disposition, which could be remarkably moody. She smoked marijuana and drank a little, but not to excess then.” (3)
A bit later, in the fall of 1935, Hammond was instrumental in teaming Billie with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson on Brunswick Records. That association continued through 1938, even though Wilson was featured with Benny Goodman’s Trio in 1935 (on record), and from early 1936 through 1938 as a part of BG’s trio/quartet presentations before audiences, on radio, in a Hollywood film and on record. Billie was featured in 1937 with Count Basie’s band, and in 1938 with Artie Shaw’s band.
It appears that Billie may have still been employed by Shaw as late as early December, 1938. Although her musical association with Artie was successful, it seems that Billie’s contract with Brunswick records prohibited her from recording with Shaw, or indeed from broadcasting with him.(4) Billie’s appearances with Shaw’s band were widely praised and popular with audiences. She unquestionably enhanced her career by her associations with Basie, and especially with Shaw, whose band was rocketing to national success in the second half of 1938. By the end of 1938, Billie Holiday was ready to begin her career as a solo artist.
I have looked for evidence that Billie Holiday was being represented by an agent or talent agency as 1938 ended and 1939 began. Previously, she had been represented by Irving Mills, then Joe Glaser. But I have not found anything to substantiate that Glaser was representing her at this critical time in her career, though he may have been. It seems that she was still receiving career guidance directly from John Hammond at that time, though he certainly did not function as her agent.
The story of “Strange Fruit” cannot be told without also telling the story of the creation of a Manhattan nightclub called “Cafe’ Society.” The term “cafe’ society” was the description of the “beautiful people” who gathered in fashionable cafes and restaurants in New York, Paris, and London in the late 19th century. Maury Henry Biddle Paul is credited with coining the phrase “cafe’ society” in 1915. Lucius Beebe created the term “chromium mist” for the cafe society lifestyle he chronicled in his weekly column, This New York, for the New York Herald Tribune during the 1920s and 1930s. The people who made up cafe’ society attended each other’s private dinners and balls, and took holidays in exotic locations or at elegant resorts.
In the United States, café society came to the fore with the end of Prohibition in December 1933, and the rise of photojournalism, to describe the set of people who tended to do their entertaining semi-publicly, in posh restaurants and night clubs, and who would include among them movie stars and sports celebrities. Some of the New York City restaurants frequented by the denizens of café society included 21, El Morocco, Restaurant Larue, and the Stork Club.(5)
In other words, the people who made up cafe’ society were wealthy and privileged, and they lived their lives in a way that involved an element of conspicuous consumption. Further, their activities were documented by the media, especially photojournalism, which was extremely popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
The concept behind the creation of the nightclub “Cafe Society” was the antithesis of cafe’ society: “Virtually every detail of Cafe’ Society was designed in a way of giving the finger to the all-rich, all-white Stork Club crowd uptown, whose regulars included the FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, already a pariah among New York’s progressives. Even the name – Cafe’ Society – was a clever play on words, a parody of the broad label ‘cafe’ society’ used to describe the Stork Club crowd. To decorate the walls of his club, Barney Josephson (developer and proprietor of Cafe’ Society), commissioned several well-known artists – among them the regular New Masses illustrators William Gropper, Anton Refregier, and Adolph Dehn – to paint murals that mockingly depicted the bona fide members of cafe’ society at play on the Upper East Side.” (6) Josephson wanted to have a club that white and black people could patronize on equal terms. (The club’s staff was also racially integrated.) This was a revolutionary concept in the Jim Crow America of 1938. The club’s advertising slogan, the wrong place for the Right people, was clearly intended to deride cafe’ society, and all it stood for. Nevertheless, wealthy young people flocked to Cafe’ Society.
Barney Josephson was a former shoe salesman from Trenton, New Jersey. He first came into contact with John Hammond by an introduction from a mutual friend in the fall of 1938, as he was organizing Cafe’ Society, and as Hammond was organizing his Spirituals to Swing concert. Soon, Josephson was attending rehearsals held by Hammond for the talent that would be performing at the December 23 concert, and Josephson was consulting Hammond about securing talent to perform at Cafe’ Society. Indeed, when Josephson’s seed money for building-out, decorating and furnishing the club ran out, Hammond himself (he was a member of the Vanderbilt family – albeit a rebellious one) invested $5,000.00,(7) and persuaded his friends and business associates Benny Goodman and Willard Alexander (BG’s liaison with MCA), to also invest in the club. Hammond’s enthusiasm for Cafe’ Society was limitless, and he could be a persuasive advocate.
Cafe’ Society opened on December 18, 1838. Although it is uncertain when the club got its liquor license, it appears that all parts of the operation were in place by December 30, including Billie Holiday as its star attraction.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “Strange Fruit” is a polemical song. Any attempt by me to explain the metaphorical lyric would be counter productive. The melody is simple, bleak, and obviously affecting. The song is in the key of B-flat minor, which suits the somber melody and harrowing lyric. The tempo is dirgelike. It was placed with Billie Holiday after Robert Gordon, the newly hired floor show director of Cafe’ Society, heard it sung at a union meeting, and then showed it to Barney Josephson and Ms.Holiday. Josephson later claimed that Billie was not enthusiastic about the song at first, which is certainly understandable. Nothing like this had ever been attempted in the milieu of popular music. How could “Strange Fruit” be effectively staged in a nightclub, where people had come to drink, talk, and have a good time?
Many people in the music business, including John Hammond, did not like “Strange Fruit.” Hammond’s dislike did not stem from the sentiments expressed in the lyric. He simply could not see Billie Holiday as the singer of a polemical song. To him, she was a jazz singer, period. Many years later he reflected: “I never liked ‘Strange Fruit’ myself, and urged Columbia (Records for whom he worked in 1939, and to whom Billie was then contracted to make records) to have it recorded elsewhere. In many ways, I think the song hurt Billie as an artist, although there is no doubt that its shock value helped her career.” (9)
But Billie gradually came to an aesthetic approach to performing “Strange Fruit” at Cafe’ Society that was perfect: She just sang it in her own way with little or no theatricality. Her strong musical personality and her voice fit and filled the song ideally. Josephson, for his part, was completely supportive of her. He and Billie agreed that the song must be sung at the end of each set: there would be no encores. He ordered the club’s entire staff to cease all activities before and while Billie sang, and asked for complete silence from the audience. All lights in the club were then turned off, except for a small spotlight on Billie’s face. When the song ended, the spotlight was turned off. There was always a long silence, followed by a huge ovation. When the house lights came on again, Billie was gone. (10)
After Billie refined her performance of “Strange Fruit” as Cafe’ Society for a month or two, she was able to record it on a loan-out basis for Commodore Records, which was operated by Milt Gabler.(11) Gabler and Commodore had a relationship with Hammond/Columbia. Gabler and Hammond were friends; Columbia pressed Commodore’s records; Commodore sold Columbia products in its shops.
The recording session took place at 711 Fifth Avenue near 55th, in the old NBC studios, just a couple of weeks after Billie’s 24th birthday. Apparently, Billie had been performing “Strange Fruit” at Cafe’ Society by singing immediately after trumpeter Frankie Newton’s cup-muted introduction. Milt Gabler, who was in the studio with Billie and her musicians, apparently suggested that after the intro, pianist Sonny White should play a paraphrase of the melody to fill space on the record. (12) After White finished, Billie sang. The resulting classic performance was captured by the Commodore recording, and that is what we hear now.
(1) The Producer…John Hammond and the Soul of American Music, by Dunstan Prial (2006), 72-73.
(2) John Hammond…On Record, by John Hammond with Irving Townsend (1977), 92; hereafter Hammond.
(4) Billie Holiday did record one tune with Shaw, Artie’s own composition “Any Old Time.” No broadcast recordings by Billie Holiday with Artie Shaw’s band are known to exist.
(5) Excerpted from the Wikipedia article “Cafe’ Society.”
(6) Prial, 124-125.
(7) Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.
(8) This map appears in Ken Vail’s book Lady Day’s Diary…The Life of Billie Holiday 1937-1959, (1996) 29.
(9) Hammond, 209. I think what Hammond meant when he said he “urged Columbia to have it recorded elsewhere,” was that he interceded with Columbia to allow Billie to record “Strange Fruit” elsewhere. The selection of Commodore Records to do that follows logically.
(10) This description is derived from from Billie Holiday…The Musician and the Myth, by John Szwed (2015), 160.
(11) The story of Milt Gabler and his numerous family members who assisted him in the operation of the Commodore Music Shops and Commodore Records is an interesting one. His brother-in-law, Jack Crystal, worked with Gabler in a number of capacities. His son, Billy Crystal, has had an outstanding career in the entertainment business as a comedian and actor.
(12) These and other details in this post come from Strange Fruit…The Biography of a Song by David Margolick, (2001) 46.
I must thank my friend Mark Esber for suggesting that I present a post about “Strange Fruit” on this blog.
The recording posted here was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.