Saturday, April 12, 2003

I watched the PBS documentary on "Strange Fruit," the 1930's anti-lynching song most famously done by Billie Holiday. A fascinating look at one of the great cultural achievements of the 20th century in any art form. While the documentary somewhat overstated the social significance of “Strange Fruit” (ie, I doubt many people’s minds were changed about lynching from the song itself), it captured some of the reasons why the song is still resonant seven decades later.

"Political" songs tend to fail because music is an inherently emotionally fueled medium. You can't exactly use a song to explain in a logical sense why someone should rally in support of a particular cause. (The failed U2 single “Relieve Third World Debt (Because Struggling Third World Countries Need the Money for Infrastructure and Education)” is a case in point.) So political songs have to rely on stirring up an emotional response. Generally, this approach devolves into glib, mindless sloganeering and finger pointing. (See: 50’s lefty folk music, Rage Against the Machine, “God Bless the U.S.A.”) “Strange Fruit” is successful because it conjures up a simple yet chilling image and allows the listener to draw their own conclusions.

What really makes "Strange Fruit" memorable to me, though, is the original performance by Billie Holiday. While the song itself is well-constructed melodically and grotesquely evocative lyrically, every subsequent version lacks the visceral punch and overwhelming sense of mourning, dread and anger that Holiday delivers. Even the Nina Simone version, which is scarifying in its own way, doesn't quite capture that same atmosphere. It’s the combination of the musical backing, an ominous minor key low-fi dirge, and Holiday’s bitter and pained delivery. And the way she delivers the line “here is a strange and bitter crop” at the song’s conclusion is breathtaking - like a collective howl of release after a hundred years of silence. I’ve listened to this song probably a hundred times, and it still gives me chills each time.

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