Born Eleanor Fagan, Billie Holiday was the first black female singer to work with a white orchestra in 1938. Not particularly well read in music, Lady Day's talent earned her good tips in New York jazz clubs eventually landing her big time music contracts. Her tragic death in 1959 at the age of 44 hasn't stopped the message of her music or the resonance of her voice.
Abel Meerpol (aka Lewis Allen) — a Bronx Jewish schoolteacher — wrote the poem on which the infamous song 'Strange Fruit' is based. Barney Josephson, owner of Cafe Society (one of the few integrated clubs in existence) heard the song and convinced Day to sing it in 1939. Fearing repercussion, Day was adverse to performing it at first. It reminded her of her own father's death and she knew her life was on the line for even reading the graphic lyrics. But sing it she did. And it has become one of the single greatest anti-racist ballads in history.
Racism drove the slave trade of old for centuries. Skin colour, religion, caste, class… all were used to shape propaganda that justified atrocities throughout history. Beliefs were handed down from father to son, teacher to student, leader to follower.
But despite abolition, attitudes and beliefs carried on. True freedom is hard to come by. Slavery continued in the forms of "apprenticeships", crop-sharing, debt bondage and segregation. We see it now in the modern-slave trade in the forms of slave classes in various cultures, prejudice against certain people groups thus blinding many eyes to their needs, and even in economic status. Imagine! A bar of soap being so powerful that it makes those waking up to owning one more powerful, beautiful and worthy than those who do not own one. Imagine… the very smell of a person evokes in us rank, file, order and worth.
In setting the captives free, there is no Jew or Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. We are all human created by the Living God. Those of us who fight for freedom are no better or more worthy than those whom we fight for — and dare I say those whom we fight against. For without the salvation of Christ, we would be both the slaves… and the slave drivers. If you'll recall, it was a white man of lucrative means selling African bodies back and forth across the ocean who was put into God's stranglehold and ended up living His Amazing Grace.
How difficult it is to admit that. I'd much rather be the good guy through and through.
Listen to Lady Day's powerful song, read the lyrics, and know that while slavery exists there still exists age old lies of racism — lies that can be crushed with the Truth.
Here is a strange and bitter crop
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
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
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning 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
Composed by Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan)
Originally sung by: Billie Holiday