“From the trees of the South hangs a strange fruit. / Blood on the leaves, and blood on the root. / Black bodies swaying in the southern breeze. / A strange fruit hangs from the poplars ”.
One night in 1939, Billie Holiday sang for the first time Strange Fruit at the Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, in front of a non-segregated but mostly white public, who froze. Activism, much less protest song, was not common in the great African-American jazz stars of the time. But Holiday sang and sang Strange Fruit —From a text by Abel Meeropol, a communist Jew, shocked by the lynchings of blacks — even if he paid dearly for it.
Two productions (available on Movistar +) review the tragic story of one of the best voices of the 20th century. On The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a Lee Daniels film, the singer is played by Andra Day, who fulfills a difficult role, although her good voice does not reach that sidereal height. It is not a masterpiece, and the script could have been worked better, although the message is well understood. And the documentary Billie, by the British James Erskine, reviews hundreds of interviews with people close to the artist made by journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl in the seventies. His objective was to document a biography that did not finish because he died at 38 years of age, in a confusing episode that was described as suicide. Two ways, one of unsweetened fiction and the other of harsh reality, of telling the same story.
In her 44 years of life, which began in poverty and abandonment, Holiday suffered all possible violence. The macho: she was raped in childhood, prostituted and mistreated by her partners, who also plucked her. That of addictions, alcohol and heroin (“He was capable of putting what 10 men in and going out to sing”, is told in Billie). And that of racism: being already a figure, they prevented her access to the elevator, and they sent her to the elevator, or they denied her to stay in white hotels (for these reasons, that brilliant generation of black musicians found a jazz mecca in Paris) . She went through jail for possession of narcotics, and the police chased her to her deathbed, where she was dying with a shattered liver, in 1959. It was not because of drugs, of course not: they beat her because she was a woman, black and rebellious. Because coming from the lowest he reached the highest. And because he did not accept that nobody told him that he could not sing Strange Fruit.
If we think about it, that brutality that we are told happened the day before yesterday. The wounds of institutionalized racism in the US are too recent, never fully healed. Some lynching still occurs, not with hanging but with firearms, which, to top it all, ends in acquittal.
“Pastoral scene from the brave south. / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth. / Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh. / And the sudden smell of burning meat. Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck. / For the rain to take it, for the wind to breathe it in, for the sun to rot it, for the trees to let it fall. / This is a strange and bitter harvest ”.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.