Music Education Réflexions

Did « Strange Fruit » kill Billie Holiday?

Update 10/6/21: The United States vs. Billie Holiday trailer – how « Strange Fruit » made Billie Holiday a clear target for the FBI.

It’s May/June in 2020. Across the world, after a few months of lockdown or confinement, people have been demonstrating against violence, everyday disproportionate violence by the Police against Black people.

#BlackLivesMatter StreetArt
Uptown Charlotte, USA. Art by a collective of Black artists in the city

What happened to Billie Holiday, the Jazz Diva who sang (owned?) « Strange Fruit », can be understood through the same lense. A drug addict, Holiday died in hospital harassed by Harry Anslinger, then the first commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, considered an extreme racist (white supremacist) at the time (1930’s).

Read more here on The Progressive.

Let’s have a listen to the song…

It reminds me of how Pop died,” wrote Billie Holiday in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” (Her father died at 39 after being denied medical treatment at a Texas “whites only” hospital).

At the time, the song’s lyrics were extremely shocking to some members of Holiday’s mostly white audiences…

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Strange Fruit is « the first significant protest in words and music, the first significant cry against racism. »

Jazz writer Leonard Feather

#BlackLivesMatter The world needs to change…


Nina Simone – Revolution (1969)

And now we got a revolution
Cause I see the face of things to come
Yeah, your Constitution
Well, my friend, it’s gonna have to bend
I’m here to tell you about destruction
Of all the evil that will have to end


Singin’ about a revolution
Because were talkin’ about a change
It’s more than just evolution
Well you know you got to clean your brain
The only way that we can stand in fact
Is when you get your foot off our back

Live Version @ Harlem Cultural Festival (1969)

I thought it was interesting that Nina Simone did a sort of answer to “Revolution.” That was very good–it was sort of like “Revolution,” but not quite. That I sort of enjoyed, somebody who reacted immediately to what I had said.

John Lennon, 1971
Unknown recording session: possibly rehearsal for Olympia concert in 1968