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The song I will be analyzing is the song Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday. The song of Strange Fruit is a song about the lynching of black people in Southern America in the first half of the 20th Century. The majority of lynching victims in the 20th century were African-Americans males. The lyrics of Strange Fruit are considered as extended metaphors. It was first written as a poem by Abel Meerpol in 1937 and then recorded and popularized by Holiday on April 20th 1939. “This poem, turned into song, was one of the first nationwide protests made against cruelty towards blacks. It was one of the first steps taken that spurred the Civil Rights Movement. It has a place in history, and yet, is not remembered today.” In this paper, I will further analyze the lyrics of Strange Fruit as well as how Holiday uses extended metaphors in her song.
The song contains very haunting lyrics with the use of extended metaphors. As mentioned above, this song protested against racism and lynching in the 20th century. Abel Meerpol first wrote the poem after seeing a photograph of two African-American boys named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith who were viciously beaten, murdered by a white mob, and then hung on a tree to die on August 6th 1930. The photograph that was taken by photographer Lawrence Beitler is considered to be the most famous lynching photograph in history. Abel was then inspired to write a poem on this photograph 5 years later with Billie Holiday recording it in 1939. I believe the extended metaphors throughout Billie Holiday’s song are that she uses metaphors to compare the hanging of the two boys being hung on the tree to fruits such as apples being hung on the tree. Fruits are usually hung on trees, but listening to the song and hearing Holiday describe bodies being hung, it is disturbing and very strange hence the song title because trees are not meant to be used to hang dead bodies. The song can also be seen as a metaphor because Billie Holiday cleverly does not use the word lynching throughout the whole song trying to make us figure out the true meaning of the song through her comparisons.
In Billie Holiday’s first verse, she sings “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging referencing the blood from the dead bodies staining the tree. The poplar tree symbolizes courage but also symbolizes death because of the strange fruit hung on the tree. It is ironic given the sense that poplar trees that symbolize with victory and perseverance, is also a tree that was most commonly used for lynching.
Billie sings the next verse of “Pastoral scene of the gallant South, The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth, Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh, And the sudden smell of burning flesh!” Pastoral scene is described as a peaceful countryside while the Gallant South was a plantation site but was also a common area with lynchings. Billie juxtaposes these 2 locations to highlight the harsh realities that African-Americans faced in the 20th century. The last three lines detail what the dead bodies looked like after being hung, while also contradicting the smell of flowers to the rotting smell of dead bodies as per one of her metaphors throughout the song.
Finally, in her last verse of “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 a tree to drop, Here is a strange and bitter crop.” Billie concludes that how Crows who are known to be associated with death, feast on the remains of the bodies left hanging on the trees. As well as making the comparison to plants when they die on how the dead plants will rot like dead bodies.
In conclusion, Billie Holiday’s song of Strange Fruit is considered to be the very first protest song. The voice of Billie Holiday emphasizes the haunting and disturbing nature of this song and encourages us to look back and reflect on the horrors that African-Americans have faced in the 20th century while also using extended metaphors to compare and contrast between light nature and the dark imagery of this song.
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