This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #417: Strange Fruit by BIllie Holliday.
“Strange Fruit” is one of the oldest songs in this entire list of 500 songs! It was recorded and released prior to World War II. Billie Holiday gained fame from her show stopping rendition of “Strange Fruit” but, originally, the song was written and released by a Jewish writer named Abel Meeropol, who wrote the lyrics and arranged the music, while his wife, Laura Duncan, sang the song. Together, Meeropol and Duncan sang, “Strange Fruit” as a protest song, in various New York City venues, including Madison Square Gaden. It was at one of these NYC nightspots that Billie Holliday was introduced to the song. She recorded it not long thereafter and it became a staple of her live shows.
However, all is not peachy, when it comes to “Strange Fruit”. First of all, the song describes the horrific sight of black men being lynched in the southern US; specifically, a highly-publicized news photo of the lynching of two men named Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. A song about racial injustice is controversial in our modern times, let alone, half a century ago. So, when Billie Holliday stated that she wanted to record it, her record company (Columbia) refused to allow her to do so. They feared a public backlash; especially, from record buyers in the south. Holliday turned to her usual record produced, John Hammond but, he refused to touch the song, either. Finally, after performing the song, acapella, for numerous other producers and record label executives, a man named Milt Gabler at Commodore Records agreed to record the song. Holliday was granted a one-song release from her contract at Columbia (who wanted nothing to do with the song) and Holliday finally recorded, “Strange Fruit”.
“Strange Fruit” is such a powerful song, sung in such a powerful way, that Holliday didn’t think it fair for another song to have to follow it when she performed live. So, “Strange Fruit” always closed her shows. When she sang it, which was often in nightclubs or supper clubs, she had a strict rule that the house lights had to all be shut off, all table service by waiters and waitresses had to pause and that the only thing going on was to be a spotlight shining on her as she sang. Suffice to say, the effect was very moving and served to highlight the solemnity of the subject matter of “Strange Fruit”. Time Magazine has listed “Strange Fruit” as the most important song of the entire 20th Century. The song has been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and the US Library of Congress for its contribution to the cultural fabric of the US.
“Strange Fruit” depicts a sad chapter in US History; one that continues to be an issue, even to this day. I would encourage you to “enjoy”, as I close out this post but, that would be wrong. Instead, I offer this song in tribute to those who have suffered at the hands of racial violence and injustice in the past and to those who continue to be affected today.
The link to the music video for Strange Fruit can be found here.
A website dedicated to maintaining the legacy of Billie Holliday can be accessed by clicking on the link here.
Thanks to KEXP for supporting important music. A link to their website can be found here.