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Top 20 Political Songs: Strange Fruit | Billie Holiday | 1939

"Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots"

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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Previous: The Times They Are a-Changin'.

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