On a late winter night early in 1939, Billie Holiday stood on stage at New York's CafM-i Society and, with a single pin light illuminating her face, sang a new song called "Strange Fruit."
"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. Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh! Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck, For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop." Lady Day sang "Strange Fruit" as a prolonged cry from the heart. As she sang the last word almost as a sob, the spotlight snapped off and the audience sat silent in the darkness.
A single person began clapping.
"Then suddenly everybody was clapping," Holiday wrote in her autobiography, "Lady Sings the Blues."
David Margolick recalls that moment again in his new book, "Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday, CafM-i Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights."
"The applause grew louder," Margolick writes, "and a bit less tentative as 'Strange Fruit' became a nightly ritual for Holiday, then one of her most successful records, then one of her signature songs - at least in those places it was safe to perform."
Margolick thinks that in 1939, when segregation and discrimination were more the rule than the exception in the United States, CafM-i Society was really the only night club in the country where Holiday could have sung "Strange Fruit" before an audience both black and white.
"There was no one else who could have introduced the song," Margolick says, over the phone. "And no other place where it could have been introduced."
Even in New York City, CafM-i Society at Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village was the only "truly integrated nightclub, a place catering to progressive types with open minds." Old Lefties, in other words. In contrast, uptown on 51st Street, the glittering Stork Club - the subject of another new book - was "famously bigoted," Margolick says.
This dirge-like song about lynching was unique in Holiday's repertoire and unique in the American popular songbook. There still is nothing quite like it. And its power remains undiminished. In its Dec. 31, 1999, issue, Time magazine called "Strange Fruit," "The Best Song of the Century: In this sad, shadowy song about lynching in the South, history's greatest jazz singer comes to terms with history itself."
Already a star
Billie Holiday was just 24 in 1939 and at the height of her powers as a singer. She'd sung with Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, Buck Clayton and Lester Young, who dubbed her Lady Day. Now she was a star in her own right. She began singing at the CafM-i Society when it opened in January 1939.
"She's very young and she's strong enough to sing ["Strange Fruit"] with a kind of contempt and confidence," Margolick says. "She's cocky almost. At a time when people weren't talking about lynching, she was singing about it."
Lady Day had survived a poor, sad and troubled childhood in Baltimore.
In her notoriously untrustworthy 1954 autobiography with its famous opening line, "Mom and Pop were just a couple of kids when they got married. He was 18, she was 16, and I was 3," she says she was born here. So does the New Grove Encyclopedia of American Music and Musicians. But it has been pretty well established that she was born in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagan. And Mom and Pop were never married.
New Grove gets it right about her music, though: "More than nearly any other singer, Holiday phrased her performances in the manner of a jazz instrumental soloist and, accordingly, she has to be seen as a complete jazz musician and not merely a singer."
Here in Baltimore she probably first heard recordings of the two singers she said most influenced her style, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
"There's no question her conception of jazz was formed in Baltimore," says Stuart Nicholson, one of her biographers.
She sang in after-hours joints, "good time" houses and whorehouses in Baltimore, according to another biographer, Robert O'Meally.
She remembered living in the 200 block of South Durham Street in Upper Fells Point, and near North and Pennsylvania avenues. In a famous passage in her autobiography, she recalled sleeping with her great-grandmother and awakening one morning clasped in the dead woman's cold arms.
She may have been sexually abused. And she says she was a maid in a house of ill-repute; she may have even worked as a prostitute. She did two stints in the House of Good Shepherd for Colored Girls. She was 10 years old and running the streets "with no apparent guardian" the first time. The second, she was baptized by a priest from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, and the baptismal certificate showed her birthplace as Philadelphia. She later would occasionally visit the Good Shepherd nuns when she sang in Baltimore.
Her dozen or so years here may have inspired her song "God Bless the Child" with the lines that go:
Rich relations may give Crusts of bread and such 'You can help yourself, just don't take too much.' Mama may have Papa may have God Bless the child who's got his own. She left Baltimore in the late 1920s to live with her mother in New York City. She was already singing at a small jazz club in Brooklyn by 1930. She soon moved to Harlem and the wonderfully named Pod and Jerry's , then to Monette's, one of Harlem's landmark clubs in the '30s. In 1933, she made her first recordings, with Benny Goodman, one of the first interracial recordings.
She recorded "Strange Fruit" in April 1939 with an orchestra led by trumpeter Frankie Newton, David Margolick's favorite version. He quotes the great drummer Max Roach who said, "When she recorded it, it was more than revolutionary.
"She made a statement we all felt as black folks. No one was speaking out. She became one of the fighters, this beautiful lady who could sing and make you feel things. She became the voice of black people and they loved this woman."
Holiday, no doubt, had heard stories of lynchings in Maryland when she was growing up in Baltimore. There were 30 between 1882 and 1933, including Townsend Cook (hanged at Westminster), Howard Cooper (lynched in Towson) and Henry Davis (hanged from a tree behind St. John's College in Annapolis).
But between 1911 and 1931, when Holiday was already in New York City, there were no lynchings in Maryland. In 1931, Matthew Williams was lynched on the lawn of the jail in Salisbury. George Armwood was the last man lynched in the Free State. He was dragged from the jail in Princess Anne in 1933, stabbed, hanged and mutilated. His corpse was dragged through the streets, soaked in gasoline, burned and dumped in a lumber yard.
Citing the conservative figures of the Tuskegee Institute, Margolick says there were 3,833 people lynched in the United States between 1889 and 1940, 90 percent in the South, four out of five of them African-Americans.
"The point is that even if the number of lynchings had diminished by the late '30s," he says, "it was absolutely a part of every black person's consciousness. And still is subliminally."
Holiday often suggested that she wrote or at least helped with the writing of "Strange Fruit." But it was actually brought to her at the CafM-i Society by Abel Meeropol, a New York City schoolteacher, Communist and prolific poet, who wrote under the name Lewis Allan.
"I wrote 'Strange Fruit' because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate people who perpetuate it," Meeropol says in an interview quoted by Margolick.
The song was sung regularly at gatherings of progressives in and around New York by Meeropol's wife, Anne, members of the teacher's union, a black quartet at a fund-raiser for anti-fascists during the Spanish Civil War and others.
Meeropol may have written "Strange Fruit," but Lady Day made it a dark, painful, living classic with her sweet, deeply emotional inimitable style.
"I think she had very mixed feelings about the song," Margolick says. "She loved it. She laid claim to it. She made it her own.
"But it tormented her in some ways. She couldn't escape from it. She felt oppressed by it. But she still sang it.
"When she got older and her life began to go down the hole, the song became intensely personal to her. It was no longer just about lynching. It was about her own life and sorrows," he says.