THE PERVASIVE REALITY OF "STRANGE FRUIT"
by John Pietaro
The utterly timeless "Strange Fruit" lives on as legendary poetry and music. The piece makes perhaps the strongest argument against race hatred of any artwork. Though it will forever be associated with Billie Holiday, the relevance of “Strange Fruit” calls for it to be renewed, relived, over the course of generations and, likewise, struggles. It was reconstructed for a new jazz audience again in recent times through the hushed voice of Cassandra Wilson, backed by a veritable all-star trio. This powerful, fascinating adaptation breathes new life into Abel Meeropol's revolutionary classic in a period of reinvigorated fight-back against the senseless killings of young Black men. Wilson, here, captures the defiantly flat emotional affect heard in Billie Holiday's recording while offering her own lament, anger and rebellion just beneath the surface. The blues turned inside out, amplified, and threaded through the wandering, minor mode of the songwriter's heritage as well as the sizzling restlessness of the jazz tradition.
This piece's history is compelling. Its author recognized "Strange Fruit" as a necessary statement then--and it remains so now. Composed in 1937 by left-wing New York City school teacher, poet and songwriter Meeropol, it was a visceral call to action in a time when people of conscience fought for anti-lynching legislation. He brought the piece to progressive friends at Cafe Society, intent on hearing it performed at least once by renowned singer Holiday. Another frequent performer at Cafe Society, Josh White, sang it too but when Holiday examined the stirring poetry of the lyric, she readily claimed it. It is a serious challenge for a vocalist to take it on--the message is so strong, that it can close off the throat like a bitter pill. But it also remains a challenge to confront simply in light of Holiday's immortal 1939 recording. Nina Simone revisited the piece in the 1960s and singers as diverse as Lou Rawls, Carmen McRae, Diana Ross, Robert Wyatt and Sting have been drawn to it.
Cassandra Wilson has a unique talent to remake established songs, melding herself into the piece's very fiber. She's gone from the music of Son House to the Monkees in the confines of a single album, so the challenge is one she is heartily up for. No cliche "girl singer", musicians recognize Wilson as another musician, like a horn out front. It’s been the case since she first came to prominence with New Air. In this recording, her interplay with the master musicians of the ensemble named for Harriet Tubman (a serious revolutionary if ever there was one) cannot be overlooked. As she emotes, Brandon Ross (amplified 6-string banjo), Melvin Gibbs (electric bass), JT Lewis (drums) drop in and out of her sphere, crafting not only a backdrop but a dioramic plane about her.
The band's sparse but quietly jarring arrangement speaks of equal parts reflection and conflict. And what is the time signature being laid out in rolling accents by Gibbs and Lewis? I thought I had it at 9/8 but the perceived downbeat moved me into another count all to easily. The pulse, just out of grasp, brings the listener to a subtle anxiety reflective of the haunting discomfort Holiday painted audiences with in a darkened Cafe Society so long ago.
IN ITS TIME, "Strange Fruit" left an indelible mark on a splintered society. The divide was racial, to be sure, and far too many felt this anguish. Jim Crow was a devastating "justification" for institutional racism, for crimes against humanity. But the societal division was also harshly drawn along class lines as the Great Depression ravaged entire cities, whole peoples. And as radicals, indeed revolutionaries, fought against these grave injustices, the political right-wing created a Red Scare to counter the uprisings. The Red Scare of the '30s was recast in the post-war years, culminating in the Cold War that blew in like a torrent even as the promise of VE Day hung in the air.
Nearly two decades following "Strange Fruit"'s publication, that renewed sense of struggle was not lost on the song's author. In yet another decade of fear and suspicion, as he watched friends' lives being ruined by McCarthyism, global capital and the grip of HUAC, Meeropol adopted the two young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The couple, facing the death penalty, were charged by a reactionary government hell-bent on silencing dissent. By the time of their parents' executions, the boys' had Meeropol's name and commitment to secure them, but the pains of such a violation grasps one's soul.
The network of hate and ignorance spans the eras with an ease that is shameful. Its hold on us is seen in the police killings of African American youth in Ferguson, on Staten Island, in Los Angeles and through a vexing list of other places, other crimes. "Blood on the leaves, and blood on the root".
The fear, the suspicion, the stinging desire to seek blame in other pervades like nothing should. This remains our own strange and bitter crop.
video: STRANGE FRUIT by Harriet Tubman and Cassandra Wilson. Harriet Tubman is Brandon Ross (amplified 6-string banjo), Melvin Gibbs (electric bass), JT Lewis (drums). Live recording, 2013 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HEBNde0mgts
John Pietaro is a writer, musician and cultural organizer from New York City: www.DissidentArts.com.