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February is African American Heritage Month and WERS AT NIGHT is honoring one artist or one song every day this month that helped contribute to social consciousness, political responsibility, or civil rights. At WERS, we believe that these songs are always bigger than just entertainment; music can be used to drive a movement or even motivate a nation.
Today we are honoring the legendary Billie Holiday and her performance of “Strange Fruit”.
“Strange Fruit” began as a poem, written by teacher Abel Meeropol, which exposed racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans in the South. Meeropol set this poem to music and with his wife, Singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York venues including Madison Square Garden. The song has been covered by multiple artists and has inspired several novels, poems and other creative works. But perhaps the most famous rendition of “Strange Fruit” was sung by Billie Holiday who released her first recording of it in 1939.
Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Miss Holiday. Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that signing it made her fearful of retaliation, but inspired by her father, she continued to sing it and made it a regular part of her live performances. Because of the poignancy of the song Holiday was only allowed to close with it, all waiters would stop service and the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face. Holiday brought the song to her recording label, Columbia, but the company feared a negative reaction from retailers in the South and network affiliates and would not allow her to record it. After much debate Holiday was allowed a one-session release from her contract in order to record the song. The song was highly acclaimed and Holiday’s 1939 record sold one million copies.
In 1978 Holiday’s version of “Strange Fruit” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America. It is easy to see why “Strange Fruit” is such a controversial song after reading its lyrics. “Strange Fruit”, according to Chicago writer Ben Winters, is “a lyrical indictment of lynching in the racist American South.” This song came during a time of fear and hatred, it shed light on a situation many were fearful to discuss, its lyrics are harsh and unforgiving of racism. Millions of people have been moved by Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit”. Holiday’s persistence and bravery made this song a national hit and also impacted race relations in the United States. “Strange Fruit” remains one of the most controversial songs to come out of the Civil Rights Era and Billie Holiday’s rendition will never be out matched.