I remember the first time I heard the song “Strange Fruit.” I was in my late 20s, raised on opera but self-nurtured by New Wave and power pop, working as a writer on a morning TV show. David Margolick, author of a new book about the song’s history, came on the show to discuss it, and the segment producer booked an up-and-coming young R&B singer named Melissa Walker to perform it. I was bustling around the studio self-importantly, as was my wont. But when I heard Walker’s powerful, expressive voice, I stopped whatever purportedly vital crap I was doing and rushed to watch.
I had never heard anything like it. The lyrics were terrifying poetry.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ 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
I read Margolick’s book. And I was ashamed not to have known about the song, first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1938. Time called it one of the 100 greatest popular songs, and Jody Rosen put it on Tablet’s list of greatest Jewish songs back in 2010. It made Tablet’s list because Abel Meeropol, who wrote the song in 1937, was a Jewish writer, Communist, and teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx who eventually adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The Guardian described just why Holiday’s recording of the single is so potent. You wait, anxious, for her to start singing, but she doesn’t even begin until 70 seconds of ominous music have elapsed.
Newton’s muted trumpet line hovers in the air like marsh gas; White’s minor piano chords walk the listener towards the fateful spot; then, at last, there’s Holiday. Others might have overplayed the irony or punched home the moral judgment too forcefully, but she sings it as though her responsibility is simply to document the song’s eerie tableau; to bear witness. Her voice moves softly through the dark, closing in on the swinging bodies like a camera lens coming into focus. In doing so, she perfects the song, narrowing the sarcasm of “gallant South” to a fine point and cooling the temperature of the most overheated image: “the stench of burning flesh.” She is charismatic but not ostentatious, curling the words just so. Her gifts to the song are vulnerability, understatement, and immediacy: The listener is right there, at the base of the tree. Look, she is saying. Just look.
How can you not? The portrait it paints is indelible. But the song—along with the story of Holiday’s short, tragic life—seems awfully brutal for a children’s picture book. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio, with illustrations by Georgia painter Charlotte Riley-Webb, nevertheless faces both the song and its context head-on. Rightly, there’s a lot of text devoted to the racism Holiday faced as a performer, the challenges of getting the song out into the world, and the need for a song like “Strange Fruit.” All those factors make this a book for older children, maybe 8 and up.
Riley-Webb’s art is hugely enticing to both kids and adults; it’s bold, bright, swooping, jazzy, and kinetic, created with acrylic paint and tissue collage on canvas paper. Riley-Webb has said of her work, “Many often speak of the ability to hear my paintings, the rhythms that glide across the canvas, resonating in the melodic tunes embodied within the intensity of the colors, the strength of the lines and boldness of the strokes.” She’s right—her art feels like music, a perfect match for this story. She conveys the energy of the clubs and New York City’s streets—waving hands, lurid electric lights, shocked and blank brown and white faces, swooshing cars.
The book opens in New York City in 1938, when Holiday was singing with Artie Shaw at the Blue Room in the Hotel Lincoln. She was already famous, already regarded as a brilliant vocalist. But the Blue Room didn’t treat her that way. “First, the staff told her not to talk with the customers,” Golio writes. They ordered her to use the service elevator and enter through the kitchen to get to the stage. “Then they said she couldn’t walk around by herself because someone might think that black people were staying at the hotel.” Holiday, furious at Shaw for not standing up for her, was put into a small room upstairs before the curtain opened, “so she wouldn’t cause any trouble.” Holiday quit.
The book then darts backward into Holiday’s childhood. Here, it feints a bit: “At 10, she ended up in a reform school for colored girls, all because of a terrible thing done to her.” (That “thing” was rape. Golio leaves it to parents to decide how—or whether—to explain this to kids.)
Two months after Holiday quits Shaw’s band, a man named Barney Josephson opens New York City’s first integrated nightclub: Café Society in Greenwich Village. Holiday is one of the first singers hired.
This isn’t in the book, but Josephson was an interesting character. He was a fitter in a shoe store in Atlantic City, the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia who dreamed of a glamorous life as a New York City nightclub impresario. In the mid ’30s, without any experience in entertainment, he moved to the big city, determined to create a scene like the one around political cabarets in Berlin. He hired Jewish artists like the abstract expressionist Ad Reinhardt and Danny and the Dinosaur author-illustrator Syd Hoff to create murals; he hired Jack Gilford and Zero Mostel (in his first gig!) as emcees. And he hired black artists like Holiday as singers. This history is fun, especially for us Jews, but it doesn’t belong in the tight confines of a picture book about a singer, a songwriter, and a song. Parents may wish to share stories about the era and the club with their kids, or not.
What I think does belong in the book, however, and isn’t there, is a counterpoint to the notion that anti-racist activism prompted Josephson to start Café Society; he sees that the famous Cotton Club is segregated and objects. “This didn’t seem right to Barney, and he decided to do something about it.” Hmm. I think kids who are old enough for this book are also old enough to understand that people can be motivated by commerce as well as idealism. Josephson wasn’t being purely noble in starting Café Society; he saw an opportunity to make money. Given that dollar signs in white people’s eyes is pretty much the story of the popularization of black music in America, it might have been worth mentioning.
The book continues with Meeropol dropping into Café Society to visit Josephson and share the song he’d written after seeing a photo of a lynching. (The text makes clear that lynching is a violent act against black people, but not exactly what it is.) Meeropol sang “Strange Fruit” for Holiday, who, the book says, didn’t like it but agreed to sing it as a favor to Josephson. (This version of history aligns with Meeropol’s memories. But it’s worth noting that Holiday, toward the end of her life, said she’d loved the song from the beginning.) Holiday approached the song by visualizing her father, “who died after being turned away from a whites-only hospital.” She auditioned the song at a house party, and the crowd was dumbstruck. When it became time to perform it for the first time in the club, Josephson’s showmanship was in full flower: “Strange Fruit” would be Holiday’s last song; it would start in silence on a dark stage; she would leave the stage afterward and do no encores.
The song became a massive hit, though its success took a toll, as the book describes:
Billie would be cursed, threatened, and assaulted for singing “that song” in clubs and concert halls throughout the country. She’d tell her worried mother that performing “Strange Fruit” might make things better, even though she knew that black people had been killed for less.
“But you’ll be dead,” her mother said. To which Billie replied, “Yeah, but I’ll feel it. I’ll know it in my grave.”
The book ends with the lyrics to “Strange Fruit.” (I suggest that parents seek out recordings of the song on YouTube.) Golio also provides context-providing back matter: A page called “What Happened Next,” discusses Holiday’s insistence on performing the song despite her record label’s refusal to record it and radio stations refusing to play it, and goes on to define lynching and to explain the role of the song in the nascent civil-rights movement. That section is followed by a more fleshed-out biography of Holiday that discusses her addictions to drugs and alcohol. There’s a quote from Meeropol about the song, source notes, and a bibliography. Parents may want to remind their children that the song was in the news recently; X-Factor contestant Rebecca Ferguson, asked to sing at Trump’s inauguration after dozens of performers said no, announced that she would perform only if allowed to sing “Strange Fruit.” (She did not perform.)
Strange Fruit is an ambitious and compelling children’s book, one that asks parents to do a lot of heavy lifting. It’s challenging, but it needs to be. I am on record with my objections to most children’s books about the Holocaust—there are some good ones, but most soft-pedal the brutality. Golio, for the most part, does not fall into this trap. He keeps the story age-appropriate for older picture-book readers but doesn’t shy away from the ugliness. He makes some editorial choices I take issue with, but he does not lie.
The song and Holiday’s life are inextricably bound up in racism and sorrow. But “Strange Fruit” is an important song for America to hear. It’s frankly shameful that I didn’t hear it until I was an adult.
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Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.