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Billie Holiday (aka Lady Day) was and still is a very influential jazz artist and singer. Holiday’s iconic jazz songs and albums thrived in a time when America was going through a time of racial intolerance. This project began with Abel Meeropol’s (aka Lewis Allan) poem which form the lyrics of the song. Meeropol was a white-Jewish teacher, writer, and songwriter. He also contributed massively on the song’s melody. Strange Fruit debuted in New York’s first integrated nightclub performed by Billie Holiday. Holiday’s soulful voice and trademark outfits built her persona at the New York Café society. This song was also Holiday’s first major recording at Commodore Records because she was rejected from recording it at another label due to the controversy it was foreseen to stir up. Having worked with Count Basie, she further explored her talents and expanded her abilities through special projects with other remarkable jazz artists in that era. Frankie Newton’s eight-piece orchestra, and Sonny White were the musicians that Holiday reached out to for this classic jazz song. This brilliant collaboration produced one of the most powerful protest songs in American history.
The beginning of the song sounds like a commencement of a horror film. The offset is sad, gloomy, and crestfallen which are exhibited by eerie melodies of the piano and trumpet. Frankie Newton’s trumpeting sets a mood for the listener as its mellow melodies and slow rhythm calms but also dismays the listener. Sonny White then comes in with improvised piano riffs that rollercoasters the mood as it feels like the stage is filled with a grievance all around. It provokes imaginations of wretchedness that the lyrics of the song describes. Accompanied with the bluesy jazz feel, Billie Holiday’s extraordinary voice expressed the lyrics with pure power and engagement. This track ends abruptly after Holiday’s strong note hold. The listener may feel anger and disappointment in the sudden silence – almost a sorrowful epiphany.
The lyrics or the poem in the song sparked many controversies in many radio stations in 1939 because it is very explicit as well as exposing. The words were well written in a sense that the word ‘strange’ is not a negative descriptor – it means something out of the ordinary. This allowed audiences to pay more attention to it and realise its true meaning. Propaganda in its best form – art. The song has a solo for the trumpet, piano, and vocalist (main). This is stealthy in a way as it implies that all people have a voice and it can be displayed through talent – not always actual voice or even violent protesting. The solos also allow the listener to focus on what each artist is trying to convey. Holiday’s emotional singing of such harsh lyrics only ‘seals the deal’.
To conclude, this single track has moved me in ways I never imagined. For a first-time listener, I did not expect to feel anger and sadness simultaneously – I cannot imagine what the people in the past who actually experienced racial intolerance must have felt. This song was a very powerful and empathetic. The lyrics set a scene where there are beautiful trees that bear life and sustain life are decorated by death or racial intolerance. The conciseness of the lyrics and song makes it even more spectacular – it tells the listeners that it does not take much to realise the obvious and wrongdoings.
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