Friday, February 18, 2011

Strange Fruit

This article about Billie Holiday's song Strange Fruit appeared in the Guardian this week. And I have a story about Strange Fruit that I'd like to tell.

I studied English at university. I finished in August 2006 when I handed in my MA thesis. In my first year (which was almost ten years ago), we had a lecture on slave narratives.

I went to the largest university in Ireland, and English was a popular subject, so we almost filled the largest 500-seater lecture theatre. On this particular day, I was sitting with a friend I'm still in touch with, scribbling on my refill pad (I'm a chronic doodler) and presumably talking before the lecture started. I don't remember what we talked about, but I remember everything else.

Our lecturer was a slight woman with a Northern Irish accent and a nice smile. She was spending longer than usual faffing about the front of the theatre, so there was still a low hum of conversation.

Then she turned to face us, and the music started.
Strange Fruit opens with a long instrumental section, and the recording sounded faded and crackly. It took a while for the conversations to stop - the opening is difficult to hear and didn't immediately overpower the sound of 400-odd people talking. But slowly it did. We sat listening to the haunting trumpet music, wondering what this was about.

Then Billie Holiday's voice: 'Southern trees. . . . bear a strange fruit. . . . Blood on the leaves. . . . and blood at the root.' And the shiver that ran through me.

I could feel the tension in the bodies around me. There was no sound but her voice. Everyone had frozen.

'Black bodies swinging. . . . in the Southern breeze. . . strange fruit hanging. . . . from the poplar trees.'

There were parts of the song where I couldn't hear the lyrics properly, and I wrote down the song title so I could rush to Google them as soon as class was over.

When the song died, the whole theatre was silent.

Our lecturer began to speak. I don't remember what she said. I don't remember very much about the slave narratives at all. I do remember a highly intelligent friend in the bar saying that we studied them because of political correctness and not because of literary excellence, and I remember not knowing enough about them to agree or disagree with him. I still don't.

But that was a powerful moment, when Lady Day's voice filled a lecture theatre in a country she never saw, 42 years after she died.


  1. Wow... It must have been a powerful moment.

    I love her music. It's sad but powerful at the same time.


  2. Ellen,

    It sends a shiver up my spine just reading your account of it. I read that article in The Guardian too. What chilled me most was the accompanying picture of the lynchings. Not just the terrible brutality of it, but the way the white crowd looked like they were just out for this jolly evening's entertainment ...

  3. Many years ago I wrote a poem that was inspired by this song and what it addressed. I posted it on my blog last month on MLK's birthday. I don't usually link to my own blog, but because of your post, I'm going to...

    I loved your post. What a powerful moment it must have been.

  4. Misha, I agree, all of her music is very affecting.

    If you like Billie Holliday, I recommend you try to find a recording of 'Four Women' by Nina Simone. It's similarly haunting and very good.

    Simon, I'm glad you enjoyed the post, that picture was completely chilling.

    Thanks for the comment, Pat. I left a comment on your blog about the poem, I really enjoyed it. Thanks for posting it.

  5. Billie's voice has that way of making you smile or breaking your heart... sometimes in the same song, too. And Strange Fruit is the Lady at her best.

    I love Nina Simone too.

  6. What a lovely post! I'm a new follower - Strange Fruit is awesome and is also the name of the crazy band in the film 'Still Crazy' which is daft but holds some pathos as well.

  7. There is no one quite like Billie for that, William :)

    Hi Margo, always nice to have a new follower! I'd forgotten that about Still Crazy - great film!


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