Eleanor Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, is one of the most prominent jazz vocalists of the 20th century. Among her most outstanding works is the song Strange Fruit, which took Billie Holiday from the realm of love songs and lighter entertainment to a status of symbol of political involvement in the civil rights cause. Strange Fruit, written and performed at the end of the 1930s, rose to fame in a context where the civil rights movement had yet to take off. It is only later on, in the 1960s, in the midst of the most active decade for the civil rights movement, that Billie Holiday's song truly began to be utilized as an iconic piece by leaders and activists of the cause. Strange Fruit became a staple of anti-racist resistance in the United States, yet Billie Holiday is not usually considered a political figure or a protest singer in the traditional sense.
This discrepancy raises many questions on the nature of Billie's actual involvement and interest in the civil rights cause and on the extent to which and reasons why Strange Fruit has been appropriated by the civil rights movement. I argue that it is not Billie Holiday's actual political contribution, but the need of every rising political movement of opposition for powerful cultural symbols of resistance that explains the importance of Billie and her song for the civil rights movement.
[...] Before “Strange Fruit,” Billie had liked to think of herself as “one of the boys”, and she saw her voice as a regular instrument and so thought of herself as one of the musicians, but “Strange Fruit” put her in the spotlight in a brand new way. Margolick describes this as “Holiday's evolution from exuberant jazz singer to chanteuse of lovelorn pain and loneliness. Once Holiday added it to her repertoire, some of its sadness seemed to cling to her” (Margolick: 22). The public respected Billie's courage in taking up the task of singing this song. What was the nature of Billie's actual involvement in the civil rights cause? [...]
[...] “Strange Fruit”, written and performed at the end of the 1930s, rose to fame in a context where the civil rights movement had yet to take off. It is only later on, in the 1960s, in the midst of the most active decade for the civil rights movement, that Billie Holiday's song truly began to be utilized as an iconic piece by leaders and activists of the cause. “Strange Fruit” became a staple of anti-racist resistance in the United States, yet Billie Holiday is not usually considered a political figure or a “protest singer” in the traditional sense. [...]
[...] The innovative nature of the “Strange Fruit” phenomenon hoisted Billie Holiday to the status of Civil Rights advocate, even though the term is anachronistic, and even though she had probably not foreseen the profound impact the song would have on some parts of American society. Jazz writer Leonard Feather called it “the first significant protest in words and music, the first 5 Page unmuted cry against racism” (Margolick: 17) and producer Ahmet Ertegun “a declaration of war the beginning of the civil rights movement” (Margolick: 17). [...]
[...] Billie did not become an advocate but a symbol of the cause. She was not actively involved, but the intensity of what was seen as her one act of involvement, “Strange Fruit”, was such that she was instantly lifted to the status of icon of the anti-racist cause. Even though lynching practices had declined, the song was released at a time when Roosevelt refused to support the anti-lynching bill in Congress for fear of the consequences this would have on his popularity in southern states. [...]
[...] The widespread belief that Billie wrote the song factors into her image as a civil rights activist and a politically involved figure. Since her authorship of “Strange Fruit” has been disproved, potential evidence of her actual involvement against racism will have to be found elsewhere, perhaps in her affection for the song and her heartfelt, peculiar interpretation of it. Billie Holiday first performed “Strange Fruit” at New York's Café Society, which would become the starting point for the song's rise in popularity. [...]
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