Civil Rights Heroines – Billie Holiday & Strange Fruit

Go here for a detailed synopsis of the life of Billie Holiday.  Portions of the summary below are taken from this site.

A troubled and extremely talented human being, Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia in 1915.  From the beginnings billie-holiday-1915-1959-grangerlife was hard.  Her father was absent; her mother was a teenager.  At the age of nine, because of continual school skipping, Bilie was then sent to the House of Good Shepherd, a facility for troubled African American girls.  There she was sexually assauted.  Things didn’t get much better upon releast.  However, in the midst of all of this chaos Holiday found solace in music.  She followed her mother who had moved to New York City in the late 1920s and worked in a house of prostitution in New York for a time – at the age of 15 she began singing in local night clubs in Harlem.

Striking out on her own, Holiday performed at Greenwhich Village’s  Café Society. She developed some of her trademark stage persona there—wearing gardenias in her hair and singing with her head tilted back.

During this engagement, Holiday also debuted two of her most famous songs “God Bless the Child” and “Strange Fruit.” Columbia, her record company at the time, was not interested in “Strange Fruit” (1939), which was a powerful story about the lynching of African Americans in the South. Holiday recorded the song with the Commodore label instead. This ballad is considered to be one of her signature ballads, and the controversy that surrounded it—some radio stations banned the record—helped make it a hit.   Along the way drugs were always a problem.

After the death of her mother in October 1945, Holiday began drinking more heavily and escalated her herione use to ease her grief.  Eventually, the drugs, the alcohol, the lifestyle it killed her.  But in the time that she lived she did more to change the manner in which a vocalist carried a lyric, and poured herself into a song, than any performer, before or since.

And Billie Holiday will always be paired with the haunting lyrics and vulgar message of Strange Fruit.  

  • Go here to listen to Holiday’s early 1939 version of Strange Fruit.
  • Go here to listen to Holiday’s later 1956 version of Strange Fruit.
  • Go here to watch  Holiday perform Strange Fruit sometime in the 1950’s.
  • Go here to listen to a fascinating podcast from NPR of the man who wrote the lyrics to Strange Fruit.

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