Billie Holiday died years ago now, back when I was barely 20 years old and she was 44 — way too young to fit into a blog about aging artists. But that doesn’t really matter, does it?
I remember when she died. I was in Vancouver, Canada then, not really a foreign country, but many foreign landscapes lay between her and me. We were very different. I imagined her in the cold, white of a hospital room, suffering however people suffer who are waiting to be arraigned on drug charges in the morning, withdrawing from drugs (at the time I hadn’t even tried grass), and dying of liver and heart disease. Her death cheated her and all of us of the songs we wanted to hear her sing again. It was the end of something we’d just begun to love.
As a freshman in college in San Francisco, I’d borrowed a mess of lps (long -playing records) from Bill Bathurst who was a jazz aficionado, a druggie, and a wonderful poet. I’d never listened to jazz before, but suddenly I was being tutored in it by the collection: Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Horace Silver, Billie…. they were all there. Among those recordings was a Billie Holiday concert at Carnegie Hall, and on that recording was “Strange Fruit,” a song that she helped write — a song that took my breath away. A child of white suburbia, I’d just begun to be acutely aware of race and racial prejudice. I hadn’t even walked in a civil rights demonstrations yet. I’d met and gotten to know black men: Stan, who lived in North Beach but was from Chicago where the bars had encyclopedias to resolve debates among the patrons, and a Nigerian playwright whose glasses I broke when I pushed him away to get free of an embrace I wasn’t ready for. I was very naive then.
Anyway, I was listening to my borrowed recording of “Strange Fruit,” and when Billie came to the lines: “Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” the audience tittered. I listened as often as I could muster the emotional stamina, but it made no sense. Were they embarrassed by the line? Did they think she’d sung something she hadn’t? Were they left helpless by the rawness of the lines, with no recourse but to laugh?
In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Billie Holiday remembered other audience reactions to the song:
Over the years I’ve had a lot of weird experiences as a result of that song. It has a way of separating the straight people from the squares and cripples. One night in Los Angeles a bitch stood right up in the club shere I was singing and said, ‘Billie, why don’t you sing that sexy song you’re so famous for? You know, the one about the naked bodies swinging in the trees.”
Needless to say, I didn’t.
But another time, on Fifty-second Street, I finished a set with “Strange Fruit” and headed, as usual, for the bathroom. I always do. When I sing it, it affects me so much I get sick. It takes all the strength out of me.
This woman came in the ladies’ room at the Downbeat Club and found me all broken up from crying. I had come off the floor running, hot and cold, miserable and happy. She looked at me, and the tears starting coming to her eyes. ‘My God,’ she said, ‘I never heard anything so beautiful in my life. You can still hear a pin drop out there.’
There were, needless to say, many times when Billie didn’t want to sing the song, especially in the South: “I didn’t want to start anything I couldn’t finish,” but one night she finally gave in to repeated requests.
When I came to the final phrase of the lyrics I was in the angriest and strongest voice I had been in for months My piano player was in the same kind of form. When I said, ‘for the sun to rot,’ and then a piano punctuation, ‘for the wind to suck,’ I pounced on those words like they had never been hit before.
I was flailing the audience, but the applause was like nothing I’d ever heard. I came off, went upstairs, changed into street clothes, and when I cam down they were still applauding.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is the 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.