One magical element of my childhood was transportation through music. Records became my sanctuary and an aural rabbit hole to Wonderland.
Wishing sometimes for solitude, I would go to the dining room, where there was an old sofa, a record player and shelves of LPs.
I had been allowed to work the record player from about 8 years of age. I understood the care that needed to be taken with the records, how to hold them between my straight palms, their edges making indents in my skin, how to place them carefully on the mat, and how to gently find the run-in groove with the needle.
My Dad had very broad tastes in music (Blues, Ska, Reggae, Rock, Jazz and Classical), whereas my Mum liked crooners and Pop (Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra). They both had personal connections to John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe, so there were a lot of Beatles records.
I would put the big headphones round my neck, ready, then lower the needle. That vinyl crackle before the music starts is still one of my favourite sounds. I would lie back, put the phones on, close my eyes and disappear.
I chose the albums to play by their covers. They were so big and glossy and there was usually stuff to read on the back.
My little brother and I had a babysitter for a long time, called Rubina. She used to put records on and dance with us. She was beautiful and I fell in with love her. She is directly responsible for my affection for Trojan Reggae and early Ska. Sadly, I never learned her moves.
I was 10 years old (in 1973) when I found an old record by Nina Simone. I decided to play it because on the cover, she looked a bit like Rubina – dark skinned, beautiful with huge brown eyes.
For some reason, I put Side Two on, but the first song jumped, so I lifted the needle and lay it back down carefully for the next song.
Crackle, a lone piano and then her voice.
Immediately, I knew this was something different. It was called ‘Strange Fruit’. I had never heard anything remotely like it.
Like most kids, I was very interested in words, in language. One of my favourite records was ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas, read by Richard Burton.
My parents were both artists, so we had all kinds of people at our house – poets and writers, photographers, musicians. There was a puppeteer and magician called Archie Ruff who had thousands of Blues LPs lining a room in his house. He would pick out records for me to listen to – Son House, Carter Family, Blind Blake and Sister Wynona Carr. That kind of stuff rubs off on you. And, as well as loving the music, I paid attention to the words.
I can vividly recall the physical effect that hearing ‘Strange Fruit’ for the first time had on me. It made me stop all other thoughts, hold my breath, suspended. I remember the sound of my heart beating along with the music in the headphones. All my senses were on red alert. I didn’t understand exactly what was going on in the song, but I still felt something.
I felt the sadness in the lady’s voice, when it catches and a tiny falsetto cry escapes at the end of the word ‘leaves’ in that first line.
“Southern trees, bearing strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the roots…black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze…strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…”
I was stunned.
I was hit by the anger, later, when she stabs at the piano keys between ‘the twisted mouth’ line and “scent of magnolia, clean and fresh” and how she sings “for the sun to rot” and I could hear her sorrow as her voice begins the long, bitter descent on the line “for the leaves to drop” – a perfect act of vocal mimicry. Her voice becomes the leaves – dropping slowly to the ground.
I was only 10 years old, and can’t remember exactly what I felt, obviously, but I know that this song affected me greatly. I didn’t understand the historical, social or racial significance of it, but the power of the singing, the words and the music combined, caused an emotional response that lingered long past the duration of the song.
I think it was the first time I realised that the real world wasn’t as nice as the world in my road, my house or my head.
I listened to it again as soon as it had finished. It was unlike any other record I’d heard. Thirty nine years later, I still don’t know what it is – Jazz, Blues, Folk?
It matters not.
As everyone seems to be saying at the moment – ‘It is what it is’.
Slavery on television.
I became aware of racism through the 1977 TV series ‘Roots’, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel of the same name. The whole family watched it – as did millions of others in the UK. It was a big deal.
As a result of ‘Roots’, I guess, one of my school teachers (Mr Briggs) did a brief history of immigration and racism in the UK. It was eye-opening for me – learning about the 1950s immigration push (Immigration from the West Indies, for example, was encouraged by the British Nationality Act of 1948 and 1,000s of people moved to the UK on the promise of employment and a better life), the ‘rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell, and the National Front – whose postal address was in the town I lived in. The bedrock of their manifesto was: “The National Front advocates a total ban on any further non-White immigration into Britain, and the launching of a phased plan of repatriation for all coloured immigrants.”
Mr Briggs also explained with great passion and simplicity where the words ‘Nigger’ and ‘Wog’ came from and why they were offensive and not to be used.
It was during one of these lessons, while hearing about slavery and a brief history of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, that I saw a photograph by Lawrence H Beitler, of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, hanging, dead, from a tree, having just been lynched, surrounded by a mob.
I knew what ‘Strange Fruit’ was about.
Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in Marion, Indiana, on August 7, 1930.
They had been arrested the night before, charged with robbing and murdering a factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his girlfriend, Mary Ball (Mary Ball later testified that the men hadn’t raped her).
A large crowd broke into the jail with sledgehammers, beat the two men, and hanged them. When one of the men tried to free himself from the noose, they broke his arms.
In 1937, Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from New York, saw a copy of the same, widely circulated photograph. Bizarrely, pictures of lynchings made popular postcards in the 1920s and 30s.
Meeropol later said that the photograph “haunted me for days”.
It inspired him to write a poem:
Southern trees bear a 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,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
“Strange Fruit” was first printed as “Bitter Fruit” in the January 1937 issue of The New York Teacher, the publication of the Teachers Union and later in the magazine New Masses, in both cases under the pseudonym Lewis Allan.
Abel Meeropol and his wife performed the poem, with self-composed music, around cafes and small clubs in New York for a while, even letting singer Laura Duncan try it out, but didn’t attract much attention.
In early 1939, Billie Holiday was performing in the newly-opened nightclub Café Society in Greenwich Village. It was the first ‘mixed’ or ‘integrated’ nightclub in New York. Meeropol gave the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of the club, and asked if Holiday would consider singing it.
After setting the poem to original music, most likely by Sonny White, she began performing it nightly, despite her fear of retribution and violence. She reportedly said that the imagery of the poem reminded her of her father, so she felt compelled to continue performing it, despite her (very understandable) fears.
1939 was years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat for a white guy, before the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Martin Luther King JR’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech in Washington. It was before President Truman’s push for the anti-lynching law, before Malcolm X or JFK. The Voters Rights Act wasn’t passed until 1965. Billie Holiday’s fears were based in reality.
Getting the song recorded and released was not easy. Columbia Records, Holiday’s regular label, refused to touch it. Even legendary producer John Hammond considered it too controversial at the time.
It was Commodore Records, a small label run by Milton Gabler, who released her recording of the song in 1939.
The song hit #16 on the charts in July of that year.
Samuel Grafton of the New York Post wrote: “This is about a phonograph record which has obsessed me for two days. It is called Strange Fruit and it will, even after the tenth hearing, make you blink and hold to your chair. Even now, as I think of it, the short hair on the back of my neck tightens and I want to hit somebody. I know who, too. If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.”
In 1999, Time magazine voted ‘Strange Fruit’ the Song of the Century. When the song first came out it was denounced by the same magazine as “a piece of musical propaganda” for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Billie Holiday’s father died because the local hospitals would not treat a black man.
Nina Simone recorded her version of the song in 1964, and it was released on Pastel Blues, by Phillips, in 1965.
I like Billie Holiday’s version of ‘Strange Fruit’ and am humbled by the courage it must have taken for her to perform it. I think it will always, quite rightly, be known as her song.
Yet, when I hear Nina Simone’s recording, it moves me far more than any other version – Josh White, Cocteau Twins, Diana Ross, Lou Rawls, Jeff Buckley and Ms Holiday included.
The simplicity of the arrangement, her sparse, emotional playing and vocal phrasing, the warmth and intimacy of the sound – for me, it is spell-binding.
I don’t listen to it often, as it remains one of the most upsetting and powerful recordings I have ever heard.
I am glad I heard it when I did, because I think it helped me try to live a life with less hatred and more tolerance. It made me aware of both the brutality of my species (in the subject matter) and also the beauty and resilience of the human spirit (in the writing and performing of such a song).
It is a shame that Abel Meeropol, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone didn’t live to see a black man in The White House.
But I think, in their own different ways, they helped him get there.
Billie Holiday, Lady Sings the Blues (1956)
“The germ of the song was in a poem written by Lewis Allen. When he showed me that poem, I dug it right off. It seemed to spell out all the things that had killed Pop (Holliday’s father had died of pneumonia in 1937 after several segregated southern hospitals refused to treat him). Allen, too, had heard how Pop died and of course was interested in my singing. He suggested that Sonny White, who had been my accompanist, and I turn it into music. So the three of us got together and did the job in about three weeks.”
Jonas, Gilbert S. Freedom’s Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle against Racism in America, 1909-1969. (Routledge, 2005).
Lewis, David Levering. W.E.B. DuBois (2 vol, 1994, 2001); Pulitzer Prize
Schneider, Mark Robert. We Return Fighting: The Civil Rights Movement in the Jazz Age (2001)
Copyright © 2012 William Henry Prince