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.
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.