Bitter Crop

The night before last the New York jazz club of the 30s and 40s Cafe Society was recreated in London at the Purcell Room on the South Bank for one night only. The club was set up in 1938 as an alternative to the largely segregated, mob-run nightclubs then on offer. Behind it was Barney Josephson, the New Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His declared ambition was to create ”a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front”. His socialist tendencies are well captured in the club’s motto: The wrong place for the Right people.

Cafe Society was opened in 1938 by Billie Holiday and it was there within the year that she unleashed upon the world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines:

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

If you ever wanted to illustrate irony… that word “gallant” kills off a view of the Confederacy in one mighty blow. When Holiday first heard the lyrics her one question was: what does ‘pastoral’ mean? Which is ironic in itself in that her whole being understood what Strange Fruit meant which is why she made the song so much her own.

With the same irony that has Danny Boy being composed by an English lawyer, it was actually written by a white man, a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol – pen name Lewis Allan, after two children he lost in their infancy. Meeropol’s motivation was simple: “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”

Here’s the poem he brought to Holiday and Josephson at Cafe Society, already set to music, already performed in obscure left-wing circles, ripe for the magic of a singer who could perform it from her soul and evolve it into something uniquely powerful.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,

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,

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Holiday delivered this body blow to audiences throughout her career – here’s one later take on it (the instability of the picture seems to suit the song, as if it can’t fully be retained by the technology):

 

Update 19.xi.11

Barney Josephson didn’t seem to have his own Wikipedia entry so I’ve just made him one

About these ads

5 comments so far

  1. Practical Psychologist on

    What a mighty pair of lines:

    ‘Black body swinging in the southern breeze

    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees’

    I had to decide which of these to include in your ‘Shelter from the Storm’ challenge.

  2. ArkAngel on

    Have you heard John Martyn’s version of the song?

  3. Practical Psychologist on

    I bought the album with it on for Caroline at the end of the ’90′s. I think he is a bit off-key with it. I do love his version of Glory Box though.

  4. [...] dark eyes. What did it take to capture that? The song Strange Fruit (the subject of my last post, Bitter Crop) and a bottle of [...]

  5. a count on

    The 1920s were labeled the Jazz Age but the music was only a part of it: Social rules were being rewritten, and in Manhattan, downtown was going up as white society and dollars poured into Harlem every night. Nightclubs and dancehalls began presenting entertainment that delivered a romanticized (and often quite derogatory) view of black culture: floor shows, revues with skits and musical numbers and music for dancing. The Cotton Club seated up to 400, and was one of Harlem’s classiest, located on the second floor of a long, modern apartment building.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 127 other followers

%d bloggers like this: