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.”