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COMMENTARY: Lady Day and The Lights!

TEXAS METRO NEWS — That need to entertain herself while entertaining others made Billie Holiday worth the price of admission at any cost. She was a legend. Sadly, though, her addiction to the drugs that eventually quieted her voice was too much for her. In fact, by the time she had had enough, the effects had silenced one of the most extraordinary vocal talents in our history. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” Billie Holiday sang.

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Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), professionally known as Billie Holiday. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Library of Congress’s Music Division.
Eleanora Fagan (April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959), professionally known as Billie Holiday. Photo by William P. Gottlieb. Library of Congress’s Music Division.

Quit Playin’

By Vincent L. Hall | Texas Metro News

Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
– Strange Fruit – as recorded by Billie Holiday

Lights Up!

It’s Women’s History Month and there are more heroines that get left out than featured. “Lady Day” brought some sunlight to one of the darkest eras of modern American history. You know that American history they keep trying to erase. Eleanora Fagan Gough, aka Billie Holiday, aka Lady Day, made a statement that bears rehearsal and rethinking. She once said, “we never know what is enough until we know what is more than enough.”

Her statement is more relevant today than most of us realize. Billie Holiday was a talented singer who broke through the color barrier with considerable force. She sang the Blues in a classy, connective, and convincing fashion. When she hit the stage, and the spotlight fell upon her, you never knew what to expect. In conversations with the “Lady,” she admitted that she was bored of singing the same song the same way night after night.

That need to entertain herself while entertaining others made her worth the price of admission at any cost. She was a legend. Sadly, though, her addiction to the drugs that eventually quieted her voice was too much for her. In fact, by the time she had had enough, the effects had silenced one of the most extraordinary vocal talents in our history. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit,” Billie Holiday sang.

It was the same fruit Ida B. Wells chronicled in her 1892 report, Southern Horrors, and the same fruit W.E.B. Du Bois alludes to in “Of the Coming of John”— “And the world whistled in his ears.” Holiday, a Black Catholic, continues her sorrowful song: “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” According to Biography Online: “In March 1939, a 23-year-old Billie Holiday walked up to the mic at West 4th’s Cafe Society in New York City to sing her final song of the night.

Per her request, the waiters stopped serving and the room went completely black, save for a spotlight on her face. And then she sang, softly in her raw and emotional voice: “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees…”

When Holiday heard the lyrics, she was deeply moved by them — not only because she was a Black American but also because the song reminded her of her father, who died at 39 from a fatal lung disorder, after being turned away from a hospital because he was a Black man. Because of the painful memories it conjured, Holiday didn’t enjoy performing “Strange Fruit” but knew she had to.

“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she said of the song in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.” Strange fruit emanated from a peculiar place.

Although Wells, DuBois, and other Negro leaders laid the foundation for the song, its penman was the son of Russian immigrants. Lewis Allan, published under the pseudonym Abel Meeropol, wrote an article called “Bitter Fruit” for publication in a magazine for unionized teachers. Parenthetically, Meeropol was the DeWitt Clinton high school classmate of Countee Cullen.

Cullen was a brilliant poet, playwright, and novelist in his own right. The Moral: Integration and diversity matter! In its infancy, “Strange Fruit” originated as a protest poem against the lynchings that set the South ablaze in terror. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at the lynchings of African Americans, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, IN.

The problem of lynchings and hangings, both public and covert, was magnified in America because of Lawrence Beitler’s photography. Billie Holiday’s vocal version gave the injustice of the killings more context and conviction.

“When Holiday finished, the spotlight turned off. When the lights came back on, the stage was empty. She was gone. And per her request, there was no encore. This was how Holiday performed “Strange Fruit,” which she would determinedly sing for the next 20 years until her untimely death at the age of 44. Lights down! Quit Playin’!

Vincent L. Hall is an author, activist, award-winning columnist and a lifelong Drapetomaniac!

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