Archive for the ‘blues’ Tag

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

Songlines #5 – NYC Blues

What song means the most to you and why?

AUDIO FILE: Hear Bronagh’s answer: Bronagh.mp3

Bronagh recalls hearing the blues in New York

Harlem

Harlem

Photo courtesy of Christopher de la Torre

100 Greatest Songs

curtis mayfieldmarvin gayefrank sinatra

Ever wondered what the 100 greatest songs of all time are? Well trouble yourself no longer – here they are…

(only one song per artist/band; songs with words, not instrumental)

Hells Bells – AC/DC
The Stars We Are – Marc Almond
Uptown Top Ranking – Althea & Donna
Ventura Highway – America
The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
Across the Universe – The Beatles
Harrow Road – Big Audio Dynamite
Hyperballad – Bjork
The Last Month of the Year – Blind Boys of Alabama
In the Sun – Blondie
Everything I Own – Ken Boothe
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed – David Bowie
ESP – Buzzcocks
Folsom Prison Blues – Johnny Cash
White Man in Hammersmith Palais – The Clash
Do you really want to hurt me? – Culture Club
Ninety Nine and a Half – Dorothy Love Coates
Alison – Elvis Costello
Just Like Heaven – The Cure
Eloise – The Damned
Knowledge of Beauty – Dexy’s Midnight Runners
Soolimon – Neil Diamond (from Hot August Night)
The End – The Doors
Fruit Tree – Nick Drake
Ballad of a Thin Man – Bob Dylan
That’s Alright Mama – Elvis
This is the house that Jack built – Aretha Franklin
Sometimes – Michael Franti & Spearhead
Inner City Blues – Marvin Gaye
My Sweet Lord – George Harrison
Hatikvah
Sonny – Bobby Hebb
The Wind Cries Mary – Jimi Hendrix
Winter in America – Gil Scott Heron
A Town Like Malice – The Jam
Jerusalem – hymn
Tainted Love – Gloria Jones
Atmosphere – Joy Division
Danny Boy – Brian Kennedy
Batonga – Angelique Kidjo
Waterloo Sunset – The Kinks
In My Time of Dying – Led Zeppelin
Oh Yoko – John Lennon
Freebird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Jealousy – Geraldine MacGowan [County Clare's finest]
Fairytale of New York – Shane MacGowan & Kirsty MacColl
The Snake with Eyes of Garnet – Shane MacGowan & the Popes
The Prince – Madness
Like a Prayer – Madonna
Shot by Both Sides – Magazine
My Little Empire – Manic Street Preachers
Natty Dread – Bob Marley & the Wailers
Don’t Want to Know – John Martyn
Wandrin’ Star – Lee Marvin
Move On Up – Curtis Mayfield
Amazing – George Michael
Monkees theme – The Monkees
Moondance – Van Morrison
Police & Thieves – Junior Murvin
Jerusalem the Golden – Effi Netzer singers
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Raglan Road – Sinead O’Connor
West End Girls – Pet Shop Boys
Julia Dream – Pink Floyd
Public Image Limited – PIL
Fanciness – Shabba Ranks & Lady G
Try a Little Tenderness – Otis Redding
Cold Water – Damien Rice
Sympathy for the Devil – The Rolling Stones
Chase the Devil – Max Romeo & the Upsetters
Street Life – Roxy Music
In a Rut – The Ruts
Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols
If I Was a Bell – Jean Simmons (in Guys & Dolls movie)
One for my baby – Frank Sinatra
Icon – Siouxsie and the Banshees
Because the Night – Patti Smith
Ghost Town – The Specials
For What it’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen (MTV Plugged session 1992)
Down on Mississippi – Mavis Staples
Father & Son – Cat Stevens
Runaway Boy – The Stray Cats
You’re the Best Thing – The Style Council
Forbidden Colours – David Sylvian & Ruichi Sakamoto (from Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence)
No Scrubs – TLC
Listening Wind – Talking Heads
Fire & Rain – James Taylor
Treason – Teardrop Explodes
Ain’t Too Proud to Beg – The Temptations
The Boys are Back in Town – Thin Lizzy
One – U2
Ivory Madonna – UB40
Mannish Boy – Muddy Waters
My Generation – The Who
Armagideon Time – Willie Williams
That Girl – Stevie Wonder
Old Man – Neil Young
Freedom Suite – The Young Disciples

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