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First Person: Petaluma’s Stella Heath on the music and life lessons of Billie Holiday

“Strange Fruit” was one of the first racial protest songs of its kind, released in 1939. It was written by a man named Abel Meeropol, a teacher who lived on the upper west side of Manhattan. He was Jewish and a member of a secret communist group that met regularly to discuss current events. He had read in the paper about a lynching that had happened in the South.

It sickened him and moved him to write a poem, which he set to music.

In New York City, a new club was opening up in Greenwich Village called Café Society. Although clubs and dance halls in Harlem had been desegregated for quite some time, this would be the first desegregated club in downtown Manhattan.

Billie Holiday’s career was beginning to take off. She was just finishing a tour of the South with Artie Shaw’s Band, and this was the first time a Black vocalist had fronted an all-white band and toured the South, so she had experienced her fair share of racism on that tour. When Billie returned from tour, she was asked to be the headlining act for the first week or so of the opening of Café Society. Before the club opened its doors, a meeting took place between Abel Meeropol, Billie, and her managers. Abel asked Billie to sing his song, “Strange Fruit.” In Billie’s autobiography, “Lady Sings the Blues,” she writes that she dug the song right off and wanted to sing it. But everyone else who bore witness to that meeting said that she didn’t want to sing the song at first. With her career blossoming, to take on this blatant and graphic racial protest song was no small feat.

She took on the song and poured herself into doing it justice. She decidedly didn’t want to make the ending note pretty. She wanted it to be something that expressed the pain of her people, something that would not be easy for audiences, something they would have to wrestle with. In the first many months of singing “Strange Fruit,” it would make her physically ill to perform it. She always did it as her last song, and never did an encore.

Lyrics by Abel Meeropol

First performed by Billie Holiday

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies 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

Then 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 the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

(To see a video of ’Strange Fruit’ performed by Stella Heath with The Billie Holiday Project, go to YouTube.com and search for “Stella Heath” and “Strange Fruit.”)

A year-and-a-half or so ago, I debuted a show I conceived of and penned based on the life and the music of Billie Holiday. With rare exception, we always end the show with “Strange Fruit,” as Billie would have. This song is absolutely still relevant and still doing its work as an active piece of historical art and protest that makes us look and reflect back on ourselves and the society in which we live and ask, “how far have we come?”

America has a sordid history with race. As Barack Obama recently said, it is our original sin. Our country was built on inequality and making Black people subordinate to the rest.

“Strange Fruit” is a song I love and respect, because it forces us to look the atrocities in our history in the face, to look at the graphic and grotesque image of the face and body of a Black person strung up and lynched in the pastoral and picturesque limbs of a grand southern poplar tree.

We have had movements for change, but I am still so daunted with how we can change the injustices so entrenched, woven into the very fabric of our country. The battles of race and equality have been fought by those who came before. The struggles Billie faced were far more extreme than the ones I have faced. I thank those who came before for the work that they have done.

But as we all see so clearly now, the work has only just yet begun.

All my life I have dealt with racism. But the racism I have experienced I have found to be so insidious, because it was sugar-coated in political correctness and societal niceties, but just simmering below the surface. It was unmistakable to me that it was and is racism.

It wasn’t something as blatant as a KKK member riding through the forest outside my dorm room (though I have experienced that too), where I could point a finger at it and say, “That’s racism.”

No, the kind of racism I’ve faced all my life has been covert, the byproduct of a society that hasn’t come to terms with its shameful history. Billie says in her autobiography that she could handle the racism of the South because they weren’t trying to hide anything or pretend that racism wasn’t there, but the racism she experienced in cities like Detroit and New York she found much harder to deal with, because it was behind her back.

The immediate gift I have found in this current moment is a new voice, or perhaps people are listening now. The veil is lifted. I feel like I can say now that I have lived with racism in the smallest of interactions all of my life. I have had to take and swallow so much of it.

When I was young it felt heavy, like no matter who I was as a person, how brightly my soul shone, no matter how kind or good I tried to be, I was still feared, not seen, and even hated – in my own family, in the professions I have had, in friendships. It felt like it was my burden to bear, that nothing good would come if I spoke too loudly about it, and most of “it” so covert no one would believe me if I called it as I knew it was.

Billie Holiday, whose protest song "Strange Fruit" was among the first such songs describing racism against Black Americans.
Billie Holiday, whose protest song "Strange Fruit" was among the first such songs describing racism against Black Americans.

Circling back to Billie and “Strange Fruit,” the absolute beauty that came out of our painful history in America is jazz. I have a love for jazz and blues music so deep down in the marrow of my bones it makes me cry, and it also fills me up. The popular music that we know and love today is built on the backbone of jazz and blues. The origins are undoubtedly Black artists who made this beautiful art to cope with the pain and oppression of living in white American society.

Jazz is, in my opinion, the truest and most honest American art we have, but we still don’t want to acknowledge it or revere it in the way we would other high art forms, because it stemmed from the thing we are most ashamed of in our history, or perhaps we are most afraid of – Black people. Jazz is improvisational, wild and uncontainable. There is freedom in it, a freedom white society might try to appropriate, but can never fully capture.

Our systems are no longer working for us. Our priorities are skewed. We value materials over morals. It is utterly overwhelming to me to think about the vast number of societal structures and systems we have that are in dire need of being knocked to the ground and rebuilt, carefully and thoughtfully and with intention. Not to amass the most material wealth for the elite few, but to build a society rooted in morality and justice.

This brings me to my next point.

Education must be the way forward. The work we are beginning now, the honesty and solidarity on the truth of race in this country is long overdue. It will take decades, centuries even, to eradicate this wound of slavery, segregation, and racism. The history books – at least the ones I had in school – should be burned and re-thought entirely. And is it realistic to say we must sit our school children down and teach them how to be anti-racist?

How do we do that?

Perhaps, a catalyst is jazz and the history of jazz.

I believe jazz should be mandatory learning, structured into every level of childhood education from preschool on through college level. Jazz should be held up and revered as the highest of American art forms.

You can’t study the history of jazz without encountering the truth about racism in this country – the struggles each Black musician faced become part of a larger story, and so we must study the music and the joy and the evolution of jazz, blues, and popular music in our society.

(Stella Heath is a musician-actor-singer-producer and music teacher. Born in Novato, she grew up in Petaluma, where she initially attended Petaluma High School, completing 11th and 12th grade at the acclaimed Interlochen Arts Academy, an intensive fine arts boarding school in northern Michigan. Her early performing arts education included several years with Cinnabar Theater’s Young Repertory Company. Heath earned a degree in classical acting from Syracuse University, after which she performed as a Shakespearean actor for several years in New York, Florida, St. Louis, California and Beijing. Her bands include The Billie Holiday Project, Bandjango and Stella and the Starlights. To find out when Heath’s next virtual concert will be visit her web-page at stellaheathmusic.com or find her page on Facebook)

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