In the Martin Scorsese documentary No Direction Home, when Bob Dylan discusses whether the performer seeks applause, he invokes the first time Billie Holiday played "Strange Fruit": "Nobody applauded ...."
"Strange Fruit" would sit comfortably in a list of the top 20 songs of all time, let alone a list of the top 20 political songs. Holiday has arguably the greatest voice in the history of popular music, and it stretches to breaking point on the line "Here is a strange and bitter crop". It is not, though, a song that invites applause.
The lyrics come from a poem written by Abel Meeropol in response to lynching in the American South, and with Holiday it found its purest expression. The central metaphor allowed a dangerous taboo to be discussed nearly thirty years before Nina Simone and Dylan would sing about Medgar Evers.
The detachment of the lyric -- "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees" -- is juxtaposed with the vocal emotion of Holiday, who was said to break down after singing it. Coming from an era of judgement by performance rather than record, Holiday said:
I can't stand to sing the same song the same way two nights in succession, let alone two years or ten years. If you can, then it ain't music, it's close-order drill or exercise or yodeling or something, not music.
This performance is captured powerfully on the extant recording, which backs up Holiday's power with haunting, swelling, piano-led instrumentation.
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