April 20, 1939: Billie Holiday records iconic protest song “Strange Fruit”
No matter who you are, one thing is certain: racism sucks. At the start of the 19th century, the lynching of African Americans was at an all-time high. One person decided to speak up about this injustice through a chilling song.
Strange fruit hanging
In the 1930s, Billie Holiday was a budding singer with a slew of songs under her belt. During various recording sessions, Holiday would be seen performing in various nightclubs in New York City. One of her favorite nightclubs was Café Society, which was owned by Barney Josephson. This was the first major club in the city to be racially integrated.
In 1938, Josephson introduced Holiday to a then unknown song called “Strange Fruit.” The track was based on an Abel Meeropol poem originally titled “Bitter Fruit.” Eager to spread the message, Meeropol asked numerous musicians to transform his poem into a song. After numerous rejections, he decided to do it himself and perform it in NYC with singer Laura Duncan. Meeropol met with Holiday to play the song for her with hopes she’ll record it.
Strange and bitter crop
Holiday was scared of performing “Strange Fruit” in public due to obvious fear of a negative reaction. Fortunately, her performance led to cheers from various audiences at nightclubs. After a ton of momentum from the live shows, Holiday went to Columbia Records about releasing the song. The label instantly rejected the tune due to possible retaliation from the South. The song even scared longtime producer John Hammond from working on it.
Luckily, record producer Milt Gabler decided to help her bring this song to life. With the help of the Cafe Society Band, Holiday recorded the tune on April 20, 1939. As expected, radio stations refused to play it upon its release a few weeks later. That didn’t stop “Strange Fruit” from flying off the shelves at record stores. The song’s powerful message helped it sell over one million copies in the United States.
Blood on the leaves
In 2002, “Strange Fruit” was placed into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. 11 years later, rapper Kanye West famously sampled it for “Blood On The Leaves” on his Yeezus album. “I think Kanye had wanted to use that “Strange Fruit” sample for a while, but it was like, “How in the hell are you going to get that to fit?” But it miraculously came together,” producer Hudson Mohawke told Pitchfork. Unfortunately, the song has a stronger tone in today’s world. While we have made some advances, there’s still much more that needs to be done.