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Our image of Billie Holiday is that of the elegant and melancholy jazz singer known for her haunting voice and immortal classics like "Lady Sings the Blues" and "My Man." But there was another song she performed that stood out in her repertoire: "Strange Fruit," a disturbing and impressionistic elegy to lynched black men in the South. Now, for the first time, New York Times and Vanity Fair contributor David Margolick uncovers the extraordinary history of this important American composition that few singers dare to perform to this day. For Margolick, "'Strange Fruit' defies easy musical categorization and has slipped between the cracks of academic study. It's too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz. Surely no song in American history has ever been guaranteed to silence an audience or to generate such discomfort."
Margolick reconstructs that discomfort when he details that fateful night in 1939 when Holiday first performed "Strange Fruit" at New York's Cafe Society. He also writes about the song's composer, Abel Meeropol (who later adopted the sons of spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg). For the author, "Strange Fruit" was a protest act on par with Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus years later, and he notes the influence the song has had on poets, singers, and writers as diverse as Maya Angelou, Cassandra Wilson, and Natalie Merchant. What David Margolick proves in this small but important book is that art can indeed move people in ways nothing else can. --Eugene Holley Jr. [via]