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Historic Fruit

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The classic, horrifying, mesmerizing song “Strange Fruit” has received a lot of attention of late – Steve Rhodes reported on a PBS special on the song and its creation back in April. Besides being a milestone in the civil rights movement, Billie Holiday’s 1939 version of the song was also a key moment in recording history.

Billie Holiday had opened a long engagement at Cafe Society in downtown Manhattan in late-’38. By April of 1939, she wanted to record a song that had become her stage finale, a bluesy ballad telling the stark – even shocking – tale of a lynching, “Strange Fruit.” The “strange fruit” of the title was the body of a lynched man with “bulging eyes and twisted mouth” hanging from a poplar tree.

Holiday’s label at the time, Columbia, was afraid to put out the song for fear of alienating southern customers, and Holiday came into Milt Gabler’s Commodore Music Shop unhappy about the situation.

Gabler expressed interest, and Columbia granted Holiday permission to record

“Strange Fruit,” “Yesterdays,” “I Got a Right” and “Fine and Mellow” with Gabler. “Fruit” got all of the attention, but “Fine and Mellow” actually became the hit.

The songs from the 1939 session and 1944 sessions that Holiday did with Gabler appear in an excellent collection, Billie Holiday, The Complete Commodore Recordings. In the collection’s liner notes, Holiday biographer Stuart Nicholson declares yet another first for Gabler. Nicholson believes that “Strange Fruit” was among the first popular songs “that became impossible to disentangle from a single, specific recording … Singer and song are bonded in a way that exhausts the meaning of the material.”

This was at a time when success with a song did not convey ownership. Hit songs were recorded by many artists as a matter of course. This concept is extremely important because prior to Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” (which no one covered until Cassandra Wilson’s 1995 version), a song held primacy over any given recording of it.

If a specific recording becomes “the” version of a song, that version achieves primacy over the song itself (just a collection of notes and words) or any given live performance of it. Under this process, a producer becomes a creator, not just a recordist. In keeping with this theory, then Milt Gabler is the first true “producer.”

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About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.
  • Good choice of a topic, Eric. In this time of denial about so much of the racial history of America, people need to be reminded of the truth, including the thousands of lynchings that occurred from Reconstruction through the 1960s.

    (Apparently Al is indisposed, or he would have been along to say the song is about apples and pears and we are turning it into something else to be politically correct.)

    BTW, Nina Simone recorded “Strange Fruit,” first in 1972 on the Stroud label, and several times afterward. I have it on my Compact Jazz CD and that version is spectacular.

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks MD, not sure how I missed the Nina Simone version, definitely my bad. I won’t speak for Al, but I feel fairly certain he is against lynching.

  • You know, when I saw that this was about “Strange Fruit,” I just had to read it. It’s been a long time since I’d heard the song (had to download it to hear it… I’m sure Billie Holliday won’t mind). It’s just such an eerie, haunting song.

    I have a Northern friend who insists that all this “PC” stuff about black suffering is over-drawn. He also insists that black people have never been under-represented in the movie industry, and that stereotyping is not degrading. And though he insists that he’s not a racist, a week ago he actually said that he wishes the black character in Freddy vs. Jason had been killed early on in the film so that he wouldn’t have had to listen to her speech patterns.

    And the irony is that all his white Southern friends are just shaking our heads in wonder. Not everybody is in denial of our country’s tragic racial history. But it’s shocking to see how many are.

  • there was an extended thread on this remix on the Exotica mailing list.

    a few people were offended that somebody would have the audacity to touch this classic tune.

    i thought they were full of crap myself.

  • David

    Carmen McRae sang it on her 1961 album Lover Man.