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Strange Fruit

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Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday
Initial reactions to the work
This song, by Billie Holiday, was made famous with its dark meaning and the astounding performance that was brought forwards. With nothing more than a fine piano, a few brass instruments, and the haunting pain heard in Ms. Holiday’s voice, this piece of music was truly a gem of modernism. Billie Holiday did an amazing job with the simulation of pure distraught that was easily conveyed to me. The sense of sadness and lamentation is truly genuine and the tone can only be recreated by Lady Day herself.
Historical context
Holiday’s piece of music was released at the end of the American Great Depression, which resulted from a crash in the stock market, causing a deep depression in the economy for the following ten years to come. During this time, unemployment rates skyrocketed out of control and people began to lose their homes and most of their possessions. This period of time was a clear contrast to the previous decade and the wealth that came from the 1920s. However, this proved to not be a complete detriment to the arts. The music industry had almost arrived at a full collapse, but this era in American history helped pave the way for jazz and blues to become a new light in otherwise dark times (Ward, 2000).
Black musicians were arguably some of the most influential people during this time, with men and women like Louie Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, and of course, Billie Holiday herself. Artistic experimentation was encouraged during this time, and people had begun to use that to their advantage. Additionally, these moments of suffering and despair had helped evolve the culture of America into a new time.

Yet, despite all of these advances, racism was still a prevalent issue in these times. The fact that the African American community were also one of the larger ethnic groups to suffer more from the economic crisis did not help to improve both the way they were seen and the way they were treated. Many Americans had fought against the racism that Hitler and began utilizing in Germany, yet racism against blacks was quite common during this time. However, this issue would be the fuel in creating the masterpiece that is “Strange Fruit” (Tabery, 2008).
Biographical context
Billie Holiday was a legendary jazz singer at her time, praised for adding a soulful and emotional tone to her music. Her compositions are still regarded as some of the greatest pieces of music to ever come out during that era. She was born as Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into poverty. She worked by the age of six, later sparking trouble from her truancies from school. Her childhood and adolescence was spent in Baltimore with her bringing up. While working in after-hours jazz clubs, she found solace in singing along to the works of Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith.
She later moved to New York along with her mother, beginning to have performances in small Harlem nightclubs, which lead her to acquire her name, Billie Holiday, from a screen star she had admired who was named Billie Dove. She never underwent professional training and therefore, didn’t know how to properly read music. While jumping from club to club, working only for tips, she caught the eye of John Hammond, who was part of a recording group that was close to public prominence at the time. From there, her career would get a push in 1935, establishing her as a truly remarkable jazz singer (Billieholiday.com, N.D.).
Exploration of themes or stylistic characteristics
“Strange Fruit” explores the lynching of a charred, disembodied black man as white men, women, and children look up at the body in satisfaction. This scene is described by Holiday as the ideal view of the American South as people stare up at the corpse thinking that something right had been done. With the vivid description that is provided along with the ominous tone, a mental image is easily constructed from purely the tone and the description that is given to the listener. Based off of a photograph detailing the lynching of Tom Shipp and Abe Smith in 1930, this piece of music brought forth the powerful negativity of racism and what events can conspire from the hate.
The song was unique in the sense that it didn’t carry a definite melody and the minimalistic use of the piano and Billie’s voice was all that was needed to propel the emotional value that this song carried. It was sung in the tune of B-flat minor, a popular choice for more somber songs due to its darker sound. Additionally, the shakiness and fluctuations in Billie Holiday’s voice assist in creating the true astonishment of the scene. The description of how “strange fruit [are] hanging from the poplar trees” is a form of symbolism which helps amplify the peaceful yet brutal tone of the piece (Shmoop.com, N.D.).
With the tone of the song consistent within the whole time, which naturally leaves a lasting effect with the entire anti-racism message. This song was regarded as a powerful message that was first regarded as too deep of a theme to put into a song. However, without it, we would lose a work that reminded us of America’s dark past and its questionable ideals that had taken society with a firm grasp. “Strange Fruit” was something original that kept some of the dark times in history in its memory.
Current relevance
With the current issues that are going on in our time today, this song still draws similarities for highlighting the racial discrimination that is prevalent in our society even after centuries of trying to fight against it. With the controversial topic of unarmed black teens getting killed by police officers around the country and with the protests that ensue, this song’s message proves to have stood the test of time, trying to remind us that we may be recreating an image that meant to be erased decades ago.
Artists still cover this song widely, some even using it within their own original tracks, such as Kanye West, a famous rapper who had sampled “Strange Fruit” in his song, “Blood on the Leaves,” which he uses to describe a new form of slavery where people are trapped under consumerism.
Changing perspective
This song has brought me details of how music can illustrate such a powerful message with only a small amount of tools. That there are individuals who will emphasize the current issues that are affecting their time while blending it seamlessly into a masterwork of notes and melodies while losing none of their intended message. This showed that songs can carry great weight and a gargantuan amount of meaning behind the lyrics, which I had begun to respect immensely.

Reference List
Perkins, K. (1998). Strange fruit: Plays on lynching by American women. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Tabery, G. (2008). Jump for joy: Jazz, basketball, and Black culture in 1930s America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Billie Holiday. (n.d.). Retrieved August 16, 2015.
Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008, November 11). Strange Fruit Music. Retrieved August 16, 2015.

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