Andra Day was the first Black woman in 35 years to win Best Actress at Sunday's Golden Globes, for her portrayal of music legend Billie Holiday. The United States Vs. Billie Holiday reveals how Strange Fruit became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement — and spooked the FBI so much they put Holiday in jail. Jonathan Dean reports
Trouble," wrote Billie Holiday, "is a thing I've learned to smell." No surprise there — as a child, the singer was raped and her mother made her work in a brothel. As an adult, she was embroiled in abusive relationships and hooked on heroin. As if that were not enough to contend with, Holiday was also targeted by the FBI — all because of a song about racism, perhaps the most powerful song about racism ever penned.
As a teenager in the 1930s, Holiday got her break as a singer by performing at clubs in New York. By the end of the decade her improvisational style had made her a star and the FBI - and more specifically the Federal Bureau of Narcotics - was taking an interest in her, ostensibly because of her involvement with drugs.
Her troubles came to a head in May 1947, when Holiday finished a show at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia. On returning to her hotel, she saw a lot of police in the lobby. She described what happened next in her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues: "Quickly, I told the chauffeur to pull around the corner. I could tell he wasn't going to be any help. It's awful to be in trouble with someone who doesn't have the heart for it." Instead, Holiday drove herself off. "I pulled away through a rain of bullets." The police, she claimed, were shooting at her car.
Days later, she was arrested on drugs charges but that was, many believe, just a cover. In reality, say some who have studied Holiday's life and work, the US Government wanted to stop her singing her biggest hit, Strange Fruit, which threatened to become an anthem of the nascent civil rights movement. It's a slow jazz standard that describes the lynching of a black man with brutal vividness: "Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze", go the lyrics. "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees / Pastoral scene of the gallant South / The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth / Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh / Then the sudden smell of burning flesh."
In 1939, the year Holiday recorded the song, the New York Post had described it as the civil rights movement's La Marseillaise and much later Time magazine called it the best song of the century. Adding to its impact, when Holiday sang Strange Fruit live, she would do so as the last song of the night. Table service was halted and smoking sometimes banned. She wanted her audience to hear all of the lyrics, which had been written by the Jewish poet Abel Meeropol in 1937 in response to reading about lynchings.
Decades later the song still retains so much resonance that it was sung during last summer's Black Lives Matter protests after the killing of George Floyd. But in 1947 it and Holiday were seen as trouble — and after her arrest she went to jail charged with drug possession. The case was called The United States vs Billie Holiday. "And that's just the way it felt," she said. She served barely a year in prison but by 1959 she was dead from cirrhosis, at the age of just 44.
The singer is the subject of a powerful new film, The United States Vs. Billie Holiday, which takes her story away from the well-worn tale of junkie victim to something more poignant. It is not so much the story of her life as that of Strange Fruit and how the FBI, fearful of the effect the song might have, tried to suppress it.
"The Government did not directly confront [Strange Fruit]," says the Rev Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, speaking after seeing the film. "Because to confront what she was saying would be to admit it existing."
Sharpton has been campaigning for civil rights since the late 1960s but today he's on Zoom in a neat grey pinstripe. "The route they chose with Billie and others in the [civil rights] movement was to discredit the voices, rather than deal with what the voices were saying. The sad and sick part is the FBI should have been going after lynching rather than Billie, who was singing about lynching. It shows the perversion of law enforcement."
Sharpton adds that, in the 1950s, Martin Luther King was indicted for taking money from his own non-profit organisation. "They tried to make him a crook like they made Billie a junkie," he sighs. "Discredit the voice, rather than deal with what they are saying."
According to Tuskegee University, an institution with a special interest in African-American history and education, 4743 people were lynched in the US between 1882 and 1968, of whom 3446 were African-Americans and 1297 were white. One case that claimed widespread public attention was the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American in Mississippi who was accused of offending a white woman — a lynching that happened 16 years after Holiday had first tried to convey the horrors with Strange Fruit.
The film is directed by Lee Daniels, an Oscar nominee who has worked with stars such as Nicole Kidman and Robin Williams. Born the year Holiday died, Daniels got into the singer as a teenager, thanks to Diana Ross playing her in the biopic Lady Sings the Blues; but it was not until he was in his 50s that he understood the significance of Strange Fruit and what it says about American history.
"All she had to do was stop singing it and her life would have been better," Daniels says. "Any Black person who wants to survive in America …" He trails off. "Well, I chose to close my eyes," he continues. "I'm embarrassed to say that I chose to get along and not cause a fuss, so I could support my family. But I see now why Billie did what she did. You can't close your eyes any more. You can't close your eyes to the atrocities."
Suzan-Lori Parks, who wrote the screenplay and has a Pulitzer for her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog, wanted to tackle a time when the Government persecuted an artist for speaking out. "But they couldn't honestly, bald-faced, as my mum would say, just upfront go after her for the song," Parks says on a call from New York. "Because to admit she was singing a song about lynching would be for the Government to admit that there is lynching."
Some of those in power, she says, still struggle with the reality of lynching. The Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018 is a proposed bill that would certify lynching as a Federal hate crime and lead to official apologies for past failures to act — but it has so far failed to pass US lawmakers after Republican senator Rand Paul raised concerns about how it will be implemented.
In the movie, the tragic singer is played by the 36-year-old American pop star Andra Day. Making her acting debut, Day has already received a Golden Globe nomination for how she portrays Holiday and the pain and resilience of her toughest years, when she was battling both her health and the Feds.
"With Billie there was stillness," Day says. "The drama was with her audience listening, writhing, sweating in their seat. She was a showman. They put a single light on her and it is brilliant to lead an audience, especially an integrated one. The audience had found their way uptown to have a good time. 'We're all drunk!' Then end [her set] on that [Strange Fruit]? Castrated. Bulging eyes. It was brilliant, as a performer and activist. The song is poetic and direct, which makes it jarring — it is not a beautiful song. It is twisted and Billie knew they were coming after her. She's, like, 'If I die tomorrow, no one will sing this again, so I need you to listen to every morsel of these lyrics.'"
After her drug conviction, Holiday was released early for good behaviour and just 11 days later, on March 27, 1948, played to a sold-out Carnegie Hall in New York. Blood poured down her face because of a hatpin issue. "By the time I started Strange Fruit," she recalled, "between sweat and blood, I was a mess." Time called the performance "throat-tightening" and it is wild, really, to think that less than a fortnight after being released from a sentence largely to do with Strange Fruit, she was singing it again.
"It cost her so much to sing it," Parks says. "It tore her up. She had to get up on that cross to sing that song." The rest of Holiday's catalogue is, pretty much, a fun night out. Ending on Strange Fruit? A fine way to wreck that night.
Nina Simone, who covered it, called it the "ugliest" song she had ever heard. Once, incredibly, a confused audience member at one of Holiday's shows shouted: "Billie! Why don't you sing that sexy song you're famous for? You know, the one about the naked bodies swinging in the trees?"
"Needless to say," wrote Holiday in her memoir, "I didn't."
When she performed the song, she thought of her father, Clarence, who she said had been denied the medical treatment he needed for a lung condition because of racial prejudice. He had died in 1937, when she was 21. "It depresses me every time," she later said of the song. "But I have to keep singing it … 20 years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South."
Why did the FBI consider the song to be so threatening? Dr Dwandalyn Reece, executive committee chair at the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution, says the FBI feared Strange Fruit could galvanise African-Americans in the way that TV footage of water hoses and beatings on civil rights marches would a decade or so later. The song came out 15 years before what is considered the start of the civil rights movement in the mid-1950s, when the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional, Emmett Till was lynched and Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man — an incident that ignited widespread protests.
"You can't shy away from it," says Reece. "That's why it was threatening. Strange Fruit is a visceral visual depiction of what the violence of racism does. That honesty and ugliness shows how things really are and in the fight against racism in the 40s and 50s, that could've been the straw that broke the camel's back. If a mass populace really confronted these images, they may be willing to do more and not turn away."
There really are no equivalent songs. The Radiohead singer, Thom Yorke, has said "Strange Fruit is the ultimate song." From Marvin Gaye to Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer-winning rapper, there have, of course, been many African-American protest anthems. But Holiday first sang Strange Fruit when there were still parts of the US where black people had to sit at the back of the bus. Some artists lose earnings if they engage in protest but Holiday might have lost her life.
Which is why, when Kanye West sampled Strange Fruit in 2013, for a song, Blood on the Leaves, about an ex-girlfriend, there was uproar. He also quoted a lyric from the song on a rap about slavery and consumerism — New Slaves — but, for many, it was simply bad taste. Other covers, however, from acts as varied as UB40 and Siouxsie and the Banshees, have been highly respectful.
"These verses, written over 80 years ago, depict a snapshot of man's myriad capacity of inhumanity to another," says Siouxsie Sioux, when I ask why so many white artists have covered a song about black lynchings. "Music is a universal language. When you decide to cover a song, you do so because it's touched something within you, not because you feel 'qualified to'."
In Los Angeles last year, a woman sang Strange Fruit on a street corner during a Black Lives Matter protest, while palm trees swayed. One sign read: "Prosecute Killer Cops." A helicopter flew overhead and everybody listened to the woman in red knee-high boots, miniskirt and a blue bikini top, singing this old protest song.
"People don't understand," says Sharpton, who read the eulogy at George Floyd's funeral last June. "Every march I've led after people were killed by police or killed by racists, every funeral I've preached at — I stand over that body, like I stood over George Floyd, and I think it could have been my child. Or me. If we don't stop it, it will be me. The reason they were lynching people, or put a knee on the neck of George Floyd, was because of the colour of their skin. They did not have a thing against George. They had a thing against Black folks. And all of us who are Black know we could be next. We're still strange fruit. We're still being killed openly and it has not stopped."
Nearly 20 years before Martin Luther King, Holiday was the "trailblazer" (as Parks calls her) for people like Sharpton to follow — and after him, he says, all the way up to Barack Obama and Kamala Harris.
"She broke through the silence," he says. "Here comes this songbird who says I'm going to say it so that the world can see. It's one thing to be subjected to oppression. It's another to adjust to it. She broke the adjustment. She said I'm not going to adjust to your depravity. I'm going to sing and scream about it. I'm going to let people know we are hurting. She was the first one to scream."
The United States Vs. Billie Holiday is on Sky Cinema now
Written by: Jonathan Dean
© The Times of London