“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 19, 2000, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture. I’m Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. Today, we’ll discuss one of the most powerful and provocative songs of the past century. The song is “Strange Fruit,” and it’s the subject of a new book by our guest, David Margolick. Welcome.
David Margolick: Thank you, Ken.
Paulson: I have to ask, are there other books out there about a single song? I’m familiar with Dave Marsh’s take on “Louie Louie,” but this has to be an unusual premise for a new book.
Margolick: I don’t think there are very many. I think there’s a book about “Amazing Grace,” and I’m told there’s a book in the works about “We Shall Overcome.” But I think there really aren’t many, there aren’t many songs that you could write entire books about. This is one of the few.
Paulson: And this was not a tough sell to a publisher because they saw your piece in Vanity Fair.
Margolick: They saw the piece in Vanity Fair, and they thought that it could be expanded upon into a book.
Paulson: And it certainly works very well. For a generation of Americans who are not familiar with the song — and it’s been conspicuously absent — how would you describe the song and its impact?
Margolick: Well, the song was a song about lynching. You know, it was a song about black bodies hanging on Southern trees, and it was a song that came out in 1939 at a time when people simply weren’t talking about this kind of thing. You know, it was before Jackie Robinson. It was before Martin Luther King. It was before the armed forces were integrated. It was before Rosa Parks. It was really the dark ages in the history of civil rights in this country, and all of a sudden, a 23-year-old woman, Billie Holiday, is singing about lynching. And I think that it — the song had enormous shock value. It just sort of jolted people in a way they’d never been jolted before, and I think it kind of emboldened other people who cared about these things to try to do something about it. So the song had — an enormous impact.
Paulson: Let’s take a moment and give our viewers a chance to hear this extraordinary song. [Song plays] “Southern trees / bear a strange fruit: / blood on the leaves / and blood at the root, / black bodies swingin’ / in the Southern breeze. / Strange fruit hangin’ / from the poplar trees.”
The voice of Billie Holiday. In your book, you quote the late jazz writer Leonard Feather as saying that “’Strange Fruit’ is the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.” In your view, does it live up to that billing?
Margolick: I think it really does. I mean, you know, it’s always hard — my days in the newspapers remind me that it’s always hard to say that anything is the first or the only because you always get a letter from somebody correcting you. There were other songs before. I mean, in a way, Negro spirituals were cries against racism too, and there was a song by Irving Berlin, “Suppertime,” which talked about lynching. There just — so technically, I suppose, it’s not the first, but it was certainly the first one of its kind and the first really explicit, euphemism-free song about this topic. I mean, if you go through the lyrics of this song, as we just heard, there’s no mincing words here. It’s just like a slap in the face, and there — I know that there had never been anything like that before. Which is the reason why everybody just sat up at attention when it came out.
Paulson: Given that there had never been a song like that before, where did it come from?
Margolick: Well, that’s an interesting part of the story, actually. A lot of people think that Billie Holiday wrote the song or that it was written for her, and in fact, she had nothing to do with it. It was written by a fellow named Abel Meeropol who was a schoolteacher in the Bronx, a left-wing guy, later who became very famous for having adopted, along with his wife, the two orphan sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, but that wasn’t until the 1950s. He was a schoolteacher in the Bronx who cared about social issues and cared about civil rights and saw a picture of a lynching in the paper one day, and he was — he was one of these very creative guys who was just always writing poems and music and shows. And he just sat down and wrote a poem about this photograph that he saw, set it to music. It was performed in left-wing circles in New York City throughout the late 1930s, at Spanish — at rallies for the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, you know, among sort of left-wing types at their bungalow colonies in the Catskills or rural New Jersey, wherever they went. It was sort of just a cult song in those circles, and somebody, somebody who was connected with the show at Madison Square Garden, where the song was performed, was also running the entertainment at the New Cafe Society, which was the first integrated nightclub in America and happened to be where Billie Holiday was opening in early 1939. And a marriage of sorts was made, and somebody arranged for Meeropol, who wrote under the name Louis Allen, to come in, sit down at the piano, and play the song for Billie Holiday. And that’s how it got to her.
Paulson: And do you have any sense of what her initial reaction was to this song?
Margolick: I think that this is an area of considerable debate. I think that she didn’t quite know what to make of it, and I think that she had little natural inclination to sing it, in fact. I mean, according to Meeropol as he later told the story, she asked only one question about the song: “What does the word ‘pastoral’ mean?” The first line in the second verse says, “Pastoral scene of the gallant South: the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” And he said — and Barney Josephson, the man who started this nightclub said that — left to her own devices, she [might] never have sung it and that he asked her to sing it. And she performed it as a favor to him. But it’s very clear that she grasped onto it very quickly, claimed it as her own, sort of laid claim to it, put her distinctive signature on it, which is really — in a sense, might explain why even she came to think that the song was written for her because she made it her own. And in no time, it very quickly became an integral part of her act. She sang it three times a night. It was always — it was advertised. You know, people in the ad said not only, “Come hear Billie Holiday at Cafe Society.” The ads would say, “Have you heard Billie Holiday sing ‘Strange Fruit’?” So it very quickly became her signature song.
Paulson: You know, it’s difficult to compare the show business of 1939 with what we have today, but is there any way to describe Billie Holiday’s place in contemporary entertainment in 1939? Who was she like? Who would she have been reminiscent of today?
Margolick: Well, I think that, you know, Billie Holiday was so utterly distinctive in so many ways that it’s very hard to analogize. You know, I think that she was like a popular — a popular jazz singer in her time. She was not a household name, but she was very popular in jazz circles. She was already recognized as a great performer. She was quite prominent, but she was never known for doing political stuff. You know, she had never done anything political before, in the sense of singing songs with explicitly political lyrics. I mean, my feeling, if you ever heard Billie Holiday is that she was such a cocky and effervescent and kind of confident woman that for a black woman in that era to be singing in the way that she was, was in and of itself a political statement, and in that sense, she was quite a political performer. But she’d never done anything whose lyrics were explicitly political before.
Paulson: You know, you mentioned that the song was performed up to three times an evening —
Paulson: … and yet, it, it would not seem to be a crowd-pleaser. I mean —
Paulson: … What kind of experience was that with the audience?
Margolick: Well, I think that you have to consider what the crowd was. The crowd was left-wing intellectuals. The crowd consisted of, you know, of Greenwich Village types and Upper West Side intellectuals and college students from Harvard and Yale, you know, and Haverford, who came in for the weekend, hopped on the train and came to New York to hear her perform. In that sense, at least initially, she was singing to the choir in a way. She was singing to people whose inclinations would have been very progressive to begin with. At the same time, because they’d never heard anything like this before, even they didn’t quite know how to react. And there is this line in her autobiography where she describes how she first performed the song and how when she finished it, there was this moment of silence when she was done. And no one quite knew what to do. Here she is singing about a lynching. You know, what do you do? I mean, do you clap? You know, do you follow the normal rituals of a nightclub? And I think it could even stop a — a supposedly sophisticated audience like this. And I can attest from personal experience to the fact that you play this song even today — I mean, now, you know, we’ve heard everything today. It’s very hard for any kind of song to have great shock value because anything goes now. Certainly there are no political issues that are off-limits. You know, there are no words that are off-limits. There are no images, really, that are off-limits. Even in this kind of sophisticated crowd and even in sophisticated crowds today, you have somebody perform this song as somebody did at my book party, for instance — we had, we had the book party at the site of the original Cafe Society, which is in Greenwich Village, right off the Sheridan Square Subway Stop. And we staged it in the same way, which was an interesting issue too — that the song was always the last song of any set that she did. All the service in the restaurant would stop. You know, the waiters would stop bringing drinks. Nothing would be rung up on the cash register. The owner of the club said that he wanted people to get their insides burned out by what they had heard. “Burned out” was the term. She would never — all the lights would go down. There would be a single pinpoint on her. As soon as she was finished with the song, the lights would go down again. Then when they came back up, she’d be gone. And it was a showstopper. This was 1939. In the year 2000, when a woman named Melissa Walker performed this song at my book party, it had the same effect. I sort of instinctively stepped in just to cut the ice. I said something when she was done, but there was that awkward interval immediately afterwards. And everybody who’s ever performed the song — and a lot of contemporary artists have: Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Sting — almost everybody who’s ever performed the song notes the same phenomenon, that it just stops people in their tracks.
Paulson: So you — you’re in New York City. You’ve got the most talked-about song around. People are coming out every night to hear it. The natural thing is, “Let’s turn this into a record. Let’s make a few bucks.” And did anyone step up and say, “We want to put that out”? Did the major labels step forward?
Margolick: Well, the major — the major labels cowered in fear. Columbia was her label, and she wanted to get the song recorded. I mean, as you said, she sort of, you know, had a proprietary interest in it after a while, and Columbia would not touch the song. Columbia refused to record it. Columbia was a national company. Columbia had Southern customers. They were afraid of offending people down South, and so Billie Holiday went to a place called the Commodore Record Shop, which was across from Grand Central on East 42nd Street, run by a fellow named Milt Gabler, who had his own little, tiny record label and put out a few things, a guy whose politics were congenial to her and to the people at Cafe Society — Billy Crystal’s uncle, incidentally. Billy Crystal’s father worked in this record store. And he was the one that actually put it out, and having put the record out, of course, the next issue was getting it played on the radio. And most radio stations wouldn’t touch it, and this lasted for many, many years. I mean, for a long time, you could not hear this song on the radio. There’s a story in my book about WNEW debating at great length over whether or not to let Billie Holiday perform “Strange Fruit.” In this era, records weren’t played so much as there were live performances on the radio, and they went back and forth about whether or not to let her sing the song and ultimately decided to let her sing it in the middle of the night when presumably nobody would be listening.
Paulson: And as you point out in your book, it is — there is some censorship, certainly, involved there, but it’s also a very somber —
Paulson: … song. It’s not appealing radio programming.
Margolick: Right, it’s not appealing programming. I mean, this was a story that — I interviewed the guy that chooses the music for one of the airlines, and there was a story that Robby Meeropol — the son of the guy that wrote the song — the adopted son of the guy that wrote the song — tells of flying on United Airlines one day. And they had Cassandra Wilson’s — I think it was her Grammy award-winning album, “New Moon Daughter,” as one of the selections on one of the channels, and that album has “Strange Fruit” on it. But the United Airlines version cut it out. And I thought, “Well, this is censorship. I mean, just, you know, taking out one cut from an album.” This guy was clearly a very progressive type, and he said, “Listen, it’s not the kind of song that people want to hear at 35,000 feet.” You know, and I guess that’s true, but it does suggest how it’s not to everybody’s taste.
Paulson: Billie had a difficult life, and I don’t want to read too much into the song, but there’s some kind of symbiotic relationship going on there.
Margolick: There really is. I mean, I kind of compare it — there’s a kind of Dorian Gray quality to it all. She took on the coloration of the song. The song became more and more — the song became more her, and she became more the song. And her performances of it become more poignant and more personal and more painful in a way. The version that we heard a bit of before was the original version, the 1939 version. And there’s a kind of — I used the term before, but there’s a kind of cockiness in her voice. I mean, there’s a kind of, you know, a kind of to-hell-with-you tone to it, and later on, the song becomes much more painful and poignant. And I think that it became much more than a song about just lynching to her.
Paulson: It’s interesting that another of her songs, “Gloomy Sunday,” also had this kind of dark overtone to it.
Margolick: Yeah, that’s true, and I think that, you know, there were a lot of people — John Hammond, the record producer, among them — who felt that this song meant — this song represented a bad turn in her career. You know, she was leaving behind these ebullient things that she had sung early on — the Teddy Wilson stuff and the Benny Goodman stuff — and turning to this darker, bleaker, more somber torch-songy sorts of selections. And I think that’s true. This song represents a fulcrum in her career. It’s really a transitional moment when she starts to sing it. And “Gloomy Sunday” was supposedly also banned, but for very different reasons. I mean, “Gloomy Sunday” — the so-called Hungarian suicide song — you know, I think that it was largely hype, but there were stories of people jumping out of windows after they heard it — you know, just distraught lovers whose despair was rekindled by hearing the song. I think — I don’t think those stories were true, necessarily. And certainly, it was a very different kind of song. The message was very different than “Strange Fruit.”
Paulson: You can imagine, though, the emotional toll of every night performing “Strange Fruit” and “Gloomy Sunday.”
Margolick: Yeah, that’s right, and then, you know, “Don’t Explain.”
Margolick: There are a lot of other ones: “You’ve Changed.” I mean, there’s a limit to how many you can do, and she didn’t always want to perform this song. And I think that when people leaned on her to perform this song, she often recoiled. I mean, she did it when she damn well felt like doing it.
Paulson: Your book talks about this being a precursor to the civil rights movement in this country, and yet, during the civil rights movement, you did not hear “Strange Fruit” —
Paulson: … as a rallying cry or a song. If you were marching, this was not an anthem.
Paulson: Why is that?
Margolick: Well, I think it’s partly for one of the reasons that you were mentioning before, Ken. It’s a downer. It’s a very depressing, gloomy, somber song, and this was not the spirit of the zeitgeist in the 1960s. This was not what animated people to go down to Mississippi. These people were hopeful, you know? It was also a song, in a sense, about black victimhood, and I think that that didn’t fit in, either.
Paulson: People objected to it because of its victimization.
Paulson: And Paul Robeson was among those.
Paulson: He speaks out against the song?
Margolick: I don’t think he ever spoke out about it. And you know, there are a lot of — one person told me that. It was never recorded anywhere that this was the way he felt. There were many, many issues pertaining to this song that I tried to research for this book and couldn’t get definitive answers to. It kind of falls between the cultural cracks. So I don’t know if Paul Robeson ever wrote that. I never came across any reference to it. My feeling is that as originally sung by Billie Holiday, it was not a song about victimhood so much. I mean, she was — but as it became associated with her and — because of her attitude when she first did it — as it became associated with her and as it became more poignant to listen to, perhaps that’s the coloration that it took on.
Paulson: She certainly grabbed ownership of it even, as you point out, in suggesting in her autobiography that she had some part in shaping it. And she objected when other people performed it?
Margolick: Well, she objected when Josh White performed it. Josh White also played at Cafe Society and started to sing it, and it became a part of his act too. And it became very much associated with him, and there’s a story in the book about how — apocryphal or not — I think he told the story, actually — um, of her coming into his dressing room one night, with a knife and threatening him, menacing him for doing the song, and to which he replied, “Billie, we should both be performing this song until neither one of us ever has to do it again.” And I guess that persuaded her because she backed off.
Paulson: I think it was Josh White who said he would not play that song internationally because he didn’t want to leave the wrong impression about the country.
Margolick: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think that black performers, particularly back then, had to be very careful about seeming unpatriotic when they went abroad. I mean, Paul Robeson got in terrible trouble for that, for criticizing America abroad. You know, Bill Clinton got in trouble for protesting abroad. You know, it’s just not the kind of — it’s seen as disloyal. Billie Holiday did perform it abroad, but there were many places where she couldn’t perform it. She was always very careful about where she performed it. You know, it’s one thing to do it in New York City, in an integrated nightclub or in sort of progressive nightclubs in other cities that were analogous to Cafe Society, but she would never do the song in the South — almost never. I only came across a couple references to where the song was performed in the South. She tells the story about doing the song once in Mobile, Alabama, and having the police ride her out of town, essentially order her out of town. I would have loved to have documented that. Again, it’s one more issue I tried to examine, and there was just no record left behind.
Paulson: Why do you think the BBC banned “Strange Fruit”?
Margolick: I really don’t know except that the song is trouble, and when the BBC would have banned it, the British were all over Africa. I suppose; I never thought about it before. I suppose it was analogous to the problems that the song had in France, which — I mention it that the song was translated into French — a very good translation, actually — and Meeropol tried to get it recorded in France. And he got a letter back from his French publisher, saying — you know, this is in 1953 or 1954 — saying, “The French have their own problems in Algeria and Indochina. They don’t — you know, they’re having their own trouble with ‘colored people.’ They don’t want to hear this.” You know, why was this song not played in South Africa? It’s the same thing.
Paulson: Meeropol writes this incredible song. What else does he write? What becomes of him?
Margolick: He is sort of red-baited out of his school teaching position. He was examined during a kind of McCarthy-like set of inquiries in the early 1940s, and he leaves teaching. He goes to Hollywood and tries his hand there for a little while, runs into the whole era of the Hollywood Ten, comes back to New York, sort of subsists writing show — you know, writing shows for people, none of which ever really are terribly prominent — you know, sort of off-Broadway kinds of shows, operettas, things like this. The only other song that people will remember him for as of now, really, is “The House I Live In,” which is a very famous song that Frank Sinatra made famous — sang it in 1945. He wrote the lyrics to that song, but when he died, he died — you know, the Times ran an obituary on him. He died in 1986. But I think it’s safe to say that he was pretty obscure when he died, and he was better known, really, for adopting the two Rosenberg children than he was for anything else.
Paulson: He did pay a price for some of his political activities, and —
Margolick: Yeah, I think that, you know, the kids tell the story about the father and mother sort of dodging subpoenas from various state investigative committees and that sort of thing. I mean, they grew up — I think that much of his traveling around was sort of one step ahead of the authorities. I think he did pay a price for his politics.
Paulson: And I know he had to testify in New York about the song. Joshua White has — had to testify, like, 1950 —
Paulson: … about the song.
Paulson: How did he defend his recording or singing of the song?
Margolick: I think, if I remember correctly, he just said, “Listen, this is a problem in this country, and it’s not unpatriotic to talk about the country’s problems.” I’m not sure how that went over with a bunch of Southern senators or congressmen, but that’s, you know — I’m sure that’s how he felt, and it was true.
Paulson: We observed at the beginning of the show that a great many Americans don’t know “Strange Fruit,” don’t know Billie Holiday. Those that do have some familiarity with the music and the woman that comes from the Diana Ross film —
Paulson: … “Lady Sings the Blues,” in which there is at least some portion of “Strange Fruit.” What is your take on how well Diana Ross portrayed Billie Holiday — how accurately? And how is “Strange Fruit” used in that film?
Margolick: Well, this is — this is a very good example of Hollywood rewriting history and really the kind of crime it is to rewrite history and to play around with the facts. I mean, the film is the kind of thing that makes me very angry. I mean, how — the way that Diana Ross represented Billie Holiday is one question, and that’s an artistic question. I don’t fault her for that or the people who made the film. I think that, you know, Diana Ross was not Billie Holiday, but then again, I don’t think even Diana Ross would make such a claim. But the misrepresentation of the facts of “Strange Fruit” I think, are really unforgivable. What happened in the movie — and I’m sure that there are people out there who remember the scene in the movie: She’s on a bus, touring in the South sometime in the 1930s with her band, and she gets off the bus to relieve herself. And she walks over a hill, and there’s this procession, this sort of procession of bedraggled-looking, poor African-Americans. I think there’s a horse and cart or something, and the — it’s clear that they’re coming from a lynching. I think she goes over the hill, and she may even, she may even see the evidence of a lynching. And then you hear the strains of “Strange Fruit” sounding in the background, and she gets this kind of mesmerized look on her face as if lyrics are taking shape in her mind. And the clear implication is that she’s thinking of “Strange Fruit” and composing it at that very moment, none of which was true. That’s the first sin in the movie. The second sin is that they, they go instantly into Diana Ross’ rendition of the song. You know, again, Diana Ross is not Billie Holiday. I won’t fault her for the way she sings it, but, but she and Barry Gordy and everybody connected with the film can be faulted for cutting out half the lyrics. I mean, I think that the most piquant and sensitive and powerful lyrics in the song, the second verse, is cut out entirely. And it’s a very short song, and half of it is cut out. The song is really eviscerated, and I think that was because in 1971, when the film was made, it was still too sensitive to sing this song.
Paulson: So we’re looking at a song that’s so powerful, it was literally banned for four decades.
Margolick: That’s right.
Paulson: It’s a terrific book and a great read. It’s been a pleasure to have you with us today. Thank you, David.
Margolick: Thank you, Ken.
Paulson: Our guest has been David Margolick. His latest book is Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. I’m Ken Paulson. We’ll be back next week with another conversation about the First Amendment, the arts, and American culture on “Speaking Freely.”
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