How ‘Strange Fruit’ Killed Billie Holiday
by Brandon Weber
February 20, 2018
“Strange Fruit” may have been written by American song-writer and poet Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allen), but ever since Billie Holiday sang the three brief stanzas to music in 1937, she’s owned it.
Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan, said she always thought of her father when she sang “Strange Fruit.” He died at age thirty-nine after being denied medical treatment at a Texas “whites only” hospital. Because of that memory, Holiday was reluctant to perform the song, but did so anyway to tell people about the reality of life as a black man in America.
“It reminds me of how Pop died,” she wrote in her autobiography. “But I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died, the things that killed him are still happening in the South.”
The song was so poignant for Holiday that she laid down some rules when she sang it at her gigs: She would close the evening with the song; the waiters would stop service when she began; and the room would be in total darkness except for a spotlight on her face. There would be no encore.
“Lady Day,” as Holiday was called by many at the time, began to work the song into her repertoire sixteen years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Jazz writer Leonard Feather referred to the song as “the first significant protest in words and music, the first significant cry against racism.”
The song’s lyrics were shocking to some members of Holiday’s mostly white audiences:
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
At times, her performance of the song was met with fierce pushback. Though many people knew that lynchings of African-Americans in the South were common, there was resistance to ending the practice among Southern whites. Racism, combined with a popular desire to limit federal power over local concerns,kept people in the North from making any successful moves to end lynchings in the South.
In the end, Billie Holiday’s insistence on performing “Strange Fruit” may have been responsible for her demise.
One of the primary attempts to silence her came from a man named Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and an extreme racist, even for the 1930s. As Johann Hari details in Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Anslinger claimed that narcotics made black people forget their place in the fabric of American society, and that jazz musicians were dangerous in particular, creating “Satanic” music under the influence of marijuana.
Holiday, who throughout her career called public attention to the devastating impact of white supremacy, was also a drug user. She drew Anslinger’s notice, and he ordered Holiday to cease performing the song. Holiday refused, and Anslinger ramped up his efforts to silence her.
After one of Anslinger’s men was paid to track Holiday and frame her with buying and using heroin, she spent eighteen months in prison. Upon her release in 1948, the federal government refused to renew her cabaret performer’s license, mandatory for any performer playing or singing at any club or bar serving alcohol.
This utterly undermined her career. Although Holiday was able to perform multiple sold-out Carnegie Hall performances over the next several years, she could no longer travel the nightclub circuit.
Unable to perform regularly at the venues she loved, and to stop remembering a childhood that included being raped at age ten, and working in a brothel with her mother, Holiday eventually began using heroin again. When she checked into a New York hospital in 1959, her liver was failing and cancerous. She was emaciated, and her heart and lungs were compromised. Despite her condition, she didn’t want to stay there. “They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me in there. Don’t let them,” she presciently told friends and family.
Indeed, Anslinger’s men, sensing a macabre opportunity, showed up at her hospital bedside, handcuffed her to the bed, took mugshots, removed gifts that people had brought to the room—flowers, radio, record player, chocolates, magazines—and stationed two cops at the door.
Even so, as doctors began methadone treatment, Holiday began to improve, gaining some weight and improving slowly. But then Anslinger’s men prevented hospital staff from administering any further methadone. She succumbed to death within days.
The only surviving filmed version of Holiday performing the song is from the British cabaret television show, “Chelsea At Nine,” recorded February 25, 1959 and released in March of the same year, just a few months before she died. Her voice is strong and impressive; the raw emotion simply devastating.
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Your account of Holiday’s encounter with the Cabaret Law is a little off. The Cabaret Law was a New York City law, not a national one. Different jurisdictions may have made it difficult for clubs to give Holiday engagements in the 1950s, but I’ve not heard of such. It is more likely that Holiday, who, with the song “Strange Fruit,” was identified with the political left, may have been refused engagements on those grounds. But again, I’ve not read that alleged anywhere. As for nightclub engagements outside of New York City after her prison sentence, let me refer you to the Concert Database (https://theconcertdatabase.com); this resource tracks concerts in Michigan going back into the 1920s. It is pretty comprehensive. It lists no fewer than seven separate nightclub engagements in Detroit, each a week or two long, between 1949-1958, including a 1952 Christmas Holiday-New Year’s week engagement.
Geoffrey 2 days ago | reply
Racists killed her for work, not that her work killed her
“In the end, Billie Holiday’s insistence on performing “Strange Fruit” may have been responsible for her demise.” This is an absolutely and shamefully wrong interpretation of the facts presented in the article (in addition to a terrible headline). White supremacists killed her. They tried to silence her, and then punished her for not being silenced. A ‘progressive’ magazine such as this should have a sufficient analysis to place the blame where it’s due (on the criminal acts of framing her and depriving life-saving care).
cs 2 days ago | reply
Great and important article. Terrible Title. Her spirit and defiance was what motivated KILLERS to kill her, not the song.
Gisele 5 days ago | reply
Lynn Ferguson said it all. I agree and have nothing to add.
Katinka Mann 6 days ago | reply
On March 2, 1955, she was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in segregated Montgomery, Alabama, nine months prior to Rosa Parks’ famous arrest for the same offense.
Towanda 9 days ago | reply
Nope, that was Colvin !
David Harris 2 days ago | reply
People Kill People
People kill People all the time. We do it knowingly and unknowingly. Every dis-ease has an emotional link, a hurt, a pain, a trauma – which are inflicted by other humans! We inflicted trauma and even today after years of supposedly intelligent learning we continue to do it. We smile in the faces of others like Pythons, and then stab each other in the back. Why is this? Is it something that is innately within us (survival) or has it been bred into us? It certainly does seem to be getting any better and look around to see what we are doing to the world. Destruction. How many species have been eradicated? How many acres of rain forest have been devastated. How many people have been killed because they just “didn’t fit in” at that time? How many people are labelled “quacks” because they want differently to what ££££££$$$$$ has made “mainstream”??? Its about time we learnt to Live and Let Live, to treat our Neighbours as We would want to be treated. To respect and cherish EVERY living plant, animal and creature that has been given a place on this planet (for a reason). Nothing is here by chance. We have go too powerful for our own good and look how intelligently we are using it. Most of us are fat/obese/chronically/virtically sick and fatigued/ because we have decimated our air, water, soil and food, not to say what we have done to our own physical and mental health with 24/7 stress, GMOs, EMFs, chemical medicine, chemical farming. These people who lead us, the monied powerful people, will also kill themselves and their own families. Where is their common sense? As a species we ALL have to make changes. Listen to the people who are different, the ones who don’t fit in, the ones who speak, sing, write with emotion (like Billie Holiday) and stop destroying our planet and our fellow wo/man. Sorry if this isn’t the place for this sort of outburst, but this article just added to my frustration of why cant we open our eyes and see what we are doing to each other???? Stop being nasty. Being nice, like smiling, is far better for every human being.
Lynn Ferguson 267 days ago | reply
As a white woman of 61 years i am ashamed of my color. My stepfather who was black taught me the meanings of words and how powerful they are. Thank you all for the color you have blessed this earth with including myself.
As a white woman of 61 years i am ashamed of my color. My stepfather who was black taught me the meanings of words and how powerful they are. Thank you all for the color you have blessed this earth with. Without the rich fabric of your lives what a truly horrible place it would be.
Suzanna B. Dinwiddie 271 days ago | reply
The song didn’t kill her…
…that’s like saying “she was wearing a short skirt”. Anslinger and his thugs killed her. She was in effect lynched.
Bluejay Young 272 days ago | reply
then, it didn’t kill her
If she had liver cancer, then that’s what killed her. You don’t get liver cancer from mistreatment, and you don’t recover from it with methadone. She was dying, and they just made it more awful for her.
arnstu 273 days ago | reply
yes, it did kill her
A person can die from not being medically detoxed. That is how Jerry Garcia died, was from detox done improperly. That is how a lot of addict/alcoholics die, from being forced to non-medically detox.
Suzanne Hayes 223 days ago | reply
inaccurate to say the song killed her
when seems like it was obviously white supremacism
nlek 274 days ago | reply
Josh White, was also penalized for singing this song.
Latifa 274 days ago | reply
Anslinger’s legacy still destroys
Anslinger made marijuana illegal to harm minorities and provide jobs for the white thugs who used to enforce the alcohol prohibition. To this very day (more than FORTY years after his death) we are still unable to free ourselves from his deadly and counterproductive marijuana prohibition.
To this day we still allow this vile and racist man to impact the society we live in and harm the people we love by denying us the right of switching from alcohol to the far less harmful and less addictive alternative, marijuana.
David 274 days ago | reply
FDR – Racist in chief
FDR and his good friend, Senator Bilbo, deliberately designed the Depression era social programs to omit Blacks. The FHA only gave loans to segregated developments. Social security, minimum wage, and other worker’s benefit programs omitted agricultural laborers and domestics – occupations where most Blacks were employed. My stomach turns when I hear “progressives” praise Roosevelt – or Wilson. FDR took segregation nationwide through discriminatory housing lending, and Wilson segregated the civil service and fired almost all Black supervisors.
Ms. A 274 days ago | reply
She laid down some rules …
I believe that the “rules” for her performances of “Strange Fruit” originated with Barney Josephson, the owner of Cafe Society, the racially-integrated Greenwich Village cabaret/restaurant where Billie first sang it.
Alan Barnes 274 days ago | reply
She laid down some rules …
Yes, that is correct, but she maintained those rules whenever and wherever she performed the song.
Brandon Weber 273 days ago | reply
One Teacher Who Taught His Elementary Students…
My husband is one teacher who taught his elementary school students about Billie Holliday for which I am proud.
Cindy Shapiro 275 days ago | reply
Back in the 70’s either Penthouse or Playboy published a revealing expose of Anslinger and what a corrupt office he controlled! He was an evil man and I believe every word that he did what he is accused of with Ms. Holiday!