Billie Holiday With One Of Her Most Powerful And Emotional Performances Ever Captured On Film

Though it was originally written by someone else as a protest song of sorts, this is one of those gems that a singer just totally owns from the start. “Strange Fruit” was shocking to many people when it came out in 1939. Even Ms. Holiday herself was initially reluctant to sing it, fearing retribution. Though many people knew that lynchings of African-Americans in the South were common, there was much resistance to ending it, since it was an effective means of social control and political intimidation by Southern whites.

She said she always thought of her father when she sang this song; he died at age 39 after being denied medical treatment at a Texas “whites only” hospital. Because the song was so powerful and poignant for Holiday, there were some rules when she performed it: She would close the evening with the song, the waiters would stop service when the song began, and the room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on Billie Holiday’s face. And there would be no encore.

Her voice is strong and impressive in this clip, but just look at the incredible expressiveness in her eyes as she sings the haunting lyrics.

Trigger warning: lyrics about racial violence.

About:

"Strange Fruit" was written by Abe Meeropol, AKA Lewis Allen. Lady Day's original performance here was broadcast in 1957 on the CBS program "The Sound of Jazz." This clip was found on YouTube. There's another version (audio only) from earlier in her career, when her voice was purer and clearer, but the gravelly quality in this clip fits the song better, I think. Lyrics come from MetroLyrics:

"Strange Fruit"

Sung by Billie Holiday

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

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

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Posted By:
Brandon Weber

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