Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Harris April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.
Southern trees bear 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.
My two favorite songs by Billie Holiday are Strange Fruit and Speak Low.
Strange Fruit, the haunting song about lynching in America was first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.
Strange Fruit is one of the earliest examples of a protest song. It is simple, spare and effective poetry. We must remember that it was written at a time when political protest was not often expressed in music, and still a dangerous thing to do. The three short verses has an unusual and ironic tone and are all the more powerful for it. To take such wonderful scenery and mix it with the brutality of hanging, to speak of lynched men as fruit, to mix up the smell of magnolias with that of burning flesh — this is powerful stuff to this day! We can only imagine the impact of the song when it was released.
Getting the song on record was not easy. Columbia Records, Holiday’s regular label, refused release it. It was Commodore Records, a small outfit run by Milton Gabler that finally released it.
Here is a great documentary about the film that was shown on PBS, it is a must see film:
The film tells a dramatic story of America’s past by using one of the most influential protest songs ever written as its epicenter. The saga brings us face-to-face with the terror of lynching as it spotlights the courage and heroism of those who fought for racial justice when to do so was to risk ostracism and livelihood if white – and death if black. It examines the history of lynching, and the interplay of race, labor, the Left and popular culture that would give rise to the civil rights movement.
Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift, like ships adrift, we’re swept apart, too soon
Speak low, darling, speak low
Love is a spark, lost in the dark too soon, too soon
“Speak Low” (1943) is a popular song composed by Kurt Weill, with lyrics by Ogden Nash. It was introduced by Mary Martin and Kenny Baker in the Broadway musical One Touch of Venus (1943). The 1944 hit single was by Guy Lombardo and his orchestra, with vocal by Billy Leach. The tune is a jazz standard that has been widely recorded. The opening line is a (slight mis)quotation from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (1600), where it is spoken by Don Pedro.
Other 7 April:
- Robert Joseph “Bobby” Bare (born April 7, 1935, Ironton, OH) is an American country music singer and songwriter. He is the father of Bobby Bare, Jr., also a musician.
- Ravi Shankar (born Robindro Shaunkor Chowdhury on 7 April 1920), often referred to by the title Pandit, is an Indian musician and composer who plays the plucked string instrument sitar. He has been described as the most known contemporary Indian musician by Hans Neuhoff in Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart.
- Bruce Springsteen plays a fantastic concert @ Allen Theatre – Cleveland, Ohio in 1976.
The concert was part of his “Chicken Scratch Tour”:This colorfully named tour began on March 25, 1976; the official 1984 Springsteen chronology would state of that date, “The fabled ‘Chicken Scratch Tour’ begins, taking Springsteen and E Streeters on an extremely meandering route through the south, midwest, and northeast United States.” The name was actually given by the band’s road crew, due to many of the shows being in secondary markets in the South.
Sources: David Margolick – Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society and an Early Cry for Civil Rights, Wikipedia, PBS Documentary: Strange Fruit