cover image Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and a Cry for Civil Rights

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and a Cry for Civil Rights

David Margolick / Author, Cassandra Wilson / Foreword by Runni

In 1939, at Greenwich Village's Left-wing Caf Society, Billie Holiday gave the first public performance of a song whose lyrics tender a gory vision of a lynched black man hanging from a tree. The song, ""Strange Fruit,"" became one of Holiday's signature pieces, eliciting strong emotions in black and white audiences alike. Now Margolick, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, has written a history of the song that Q, a British music publication, counted among the ""ten songs that actually changed the world."" Following ""Strange Fruit"" from its birth at the hand of Jewish schoolteacher and Communist Abel Meeropol through its occasional present-day revivals by a smattering of intrepid musicians, Margolick culls the opinions of music scholars on the influential ballad's cultural and musical impact and quotes critics from Holiday's era. He consults sources including black newspapers, radio stations, record sales and jukebox data to determine who actually heard ""Strange Fruit"" and how different groups reacted. Most effectively, by drawing on personal recollections of Holiday, Meeropol, Caf Society promoter Barney Josephson and people who heard Holiday sing the song either live or on vinyl--plus a brief history of Southern lynchings--Margolick re-creates the tense web of bitterness, guilt, denial and anger that surrounded Holiday's charged performances of ""Strange Fruit."" With thorough research and the smooth writing of a journalist, Margolick has produced a superb piece of cultural history. Photos. Author tour. (Mar.)