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The song “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday is a jazz ballad which can also be attributed to the blues style. Before Billie Holiday released the song, it was a poem, written by the American teacher Abel Merropol. This poem was a response to the lynching’s going on in the south due to racism and Jim Crow laws. During this time, numerous Afro-American citizens were lynched. This is also the meaning behind “Strange fruit” hanging from trees. Billie Holiday herself was an Afro American woman, struggling for money before her career in Jazz. Because of all the racism in the south and the political divide which was going on, Billie Holiday had trouble recording the song with her original Label Columbia.
As a result, they refused to record this song. It was only due to her friend Milt Gabler who granted her the wish of recording this song with his record label Commodore. After recording, this song became a timeless masterpiece of the civil rights movement and gained a lot of popularity. Strange Fruit features 4 different types of instruments: The Piano, a Trumpet, a double Bass and a sax. In my opinion, the Piano is the most prevalent Instrument. However, this song puts more emphasis on Billy Holidays voice, while the instruments only help making the song sound darker. Musically, this song can be characterized as a jazz ballad with a blues feel. Due to the very sad and dark nature of the song, the interplay between Billie Holidays voice and the dark feel of the instruments create the perfect feel for this sad topic. Therefore, the tempo of this song is very slow. The piano key is a b-flat and much lower than Billy Holidays voice, giving the listener a nice and subtle contrast between high and low pitches. Because this song was originally a poem, it is quite short. The original poem was divided in 3 stanzas and 12 lines.
For this reason, the song features a lot of room for “breaks” where only the saxophone/trumpet and piano can be heard. Personally, I believe, that the reason behind this layout was to let the listener reflect on what they just heard and process the brutal events Billie Holiday is singing about. The meter of this song can be characterized as a quadruple. Holiday makes an effort of singing the whole song in the same tone while putting emphasis on particular words. For example, the last word of the song “cry” is very long. This gives the listeners goosebumps thinking about all the pain the Afro-American families had to suffer through and is in my opinion, the perfect way to end this song. It is like the last cry for help before the music eventually stops. Sadly, I could not find any further information on the artists playing the instrument’s and also “Strange Fruit” being a single, no other information on the related album. I was personally very stunned by this song.
The first time listening to it I was unaware of the topic Billie Holiday was singing about. However, even without this prior knowledge I felt the sad and dark nature of this song. Afterwards, I researched the topic of the lynching in the south. I was surprised that in no history class so far this was spoken about and after listening to this song again with this knowledge, it literally gave me goosebumps. With the help of Billie Holiday’s beautiful voice, she managed to make this poem come “alive” and was able to capture the feeling some might have felt. All in all, Billie Holiday was able to produce a musical masterpiece which captured the political events which were going on during this time. This is not only a song but furthermore, history. One can read about such devastating events but hearing a song which capture the emotions is a whole other level.
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