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Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”: The First Great Protest Song of the Civil Rights Movement

What happens when protest is propelled forward by music? How do people in power silence artists who have the courage to speak against injustice? What is the cost of resistance through art? 

Billie Holiday, the legendary jazz singer, challenges the injustice of lynching with her iconic rendition of the song “Strange Fruit,” the first great Civil Rights Movement protest song, but she paid a high price.

Billie Holiday had a tough childhood. At 9 years old she started working as an errand-runner in a Baltimore brothel and was sexually assaulted. At the age of 10, she was sent to The House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school for “troubled” African-American girls. When she was released from The House of the Good Shepherd at age 10, Holiday moved with her mother Sadie, the only consistent support system in her life, to New York City. 

Holiday worked in a New York brothel, and was arrested for solicitation as a teenager. Upon release from custody, she started singing in clubs around Harlem, sometimes accompanied by a house pianist, sometimes as part of a group, earning only tips for her performances. Holiday had no formal training–she could not read music, and learned to sing only by listening to Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith recordings–but she piqued the interest of John Hammond, a successful record producer, when she was 18 years old. 

Hammond connected Holiday with Benny Goodman, a clarinetist who was rising to prominence in the jazz scene. Holiday recorded her first commercial release, “Your Mother’s Son-In-Law” with Goodman, and by the late 1930s, she had cut multiple records and had her own recording contract. Her song “Riffin’ The Scotch” was a top 10 hit in 1934. Holiday rose to fame through the 1930s, appearing in a film with Duke Ellington, recording hit songs (“What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and “Miss Brown To You” earned her increasing accolades in the jazz community, in New York and beyond), and touring with Count Basie in 1937. In 1938, she played with Artie Shaw’s orchestra, becoming one of the first black women in American history to record with a white orchestra. 

When an image of the grotesque lynching of two black men in Indiana surfaced 1930, Abel Meeropol, Bronx school teacher, wrote a response poem called Bitter Fruit. The chilling poem was published in New York Teacher Magazine (under his alias, Lewis Allan) in 1937. Meeropol worked out a melody and the song was renamed “Strange Fruit.” Holiday debuted the song at Cafe Society, a downtown music venue. Abel Meeropol was in the audience. He marveled that she did exactly what he hoped the song would do, “jolt the audience out of complacency.”

She put everything she knew about racial oppression in America into her chilling performances of this song, drawing public attention to the issue while horrifying, and inspired her audiences. Her complicated relationship with the song, and the ugly story of how it was used as a weapon against her, is often overlooked in historical accounts.  

While audiences were often uncomfortable with the song, but despite the fear, threats, and backlash Holiday faced on a daily basis, she did not stop performing it. Holiday’s label, Columbia Records, refused to record and distribute the song, fearing controversy and unwilling to risk the alienation of while listeners, which would lose them money and credibility. So Holiday recorded the song with Commodore Records in a four-hour session in April 1939, at their recording studio on West 52nd Street. 

The song, released that summer, reached massive success. Holiday subverted the expectation of a black performer playing to white audiences; she demanded undivided attention and critical questioning, turning words that would have previously been considered propaganda, into mainstream pop music.  

Many people attempted to silence Billie Holiday. Among them was Harry Anslinger, the head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, a known racist who was outspoken about his theory that jazz musicians were dangerous, and black people using drugs were a threat to the country’s very fabric. He was embarking on a mission–to eradicate all drugs, all throughout the country–which became the foundation for the multi-decade, multi-billion dollar War on Drugs.

Anslinger clung tight to white supremacy, using fear of drugs (and therefore the Black population, to which he attributed all drug abuse) to instill panic in white Americans. He was known to treat white drug addicts with patience and compassion, but when he found out that Billie Holiday also suffered from addition, he saw a way in. First, he demanded that she cease performing Strange Fruit. Unsurprisingly, she refused. This was just the beginning of his attempts to stop her. 

Every performance of “Strange Fruit” pained Billie Holiday. Racist audience members would leave venues upon hearing it. She poured the hardships of her life experience, and the racism and sexism she experienced daily, into this 3-stanza song. Some biographers argue that Strange Fruit led her to alcohol, drugs, and bad men.

Holiday’s relationships with men were often abusive. Men saw in Holiday an opportunity to advance themselves. She was blazing the trail as an enormously talented black woman in entertainment–she was making her own money and people knew her name– and it was common practice for men to make promises they couldn’t keep, and take advantage of the young rising star.

Holiday often show up to performances and other appearances in the 1930s so badly beaten by her husband and manager, Louis MacKay, that she’d have to have her ribs taped. When she finally cut him off, Mackay went to the police and ultimately made a deal with Harry Anslinger to set her up. The two men plotted to end her career–and her life–together.

Holiday’s 1941 marriage to James Monroe introduced her to opium, and in 1945 her boyfriend Joe Guy led her to heroin. After her mother’s death that year, Holiday started leaning on alcohol and drugs to ease her pain. Harry Anslinger paid someone to follow her and frame her with heroin-related crimes in 1947; she was subsequently charged and sentenced to eighteen months in custody in West Virginia.

When she was released, the federal government refused to return her performer’s license, ending her career in the nightclub circuit and setting her back significantly. 10 days after her release from custody, however, she sold out Carnegie Hall and there seemed no question that she would bounce back. But in the following years, she was arrested twice more for narcotics, both times whilst in relationships with opportunistic men.

When Holiday was hospitalized in 1959, Harry Anslinger saw an opportunity to end her once and for all. Friends and family of Billie Holiday recall her concern that “they” would kill her in the hospital. She was right.

After collapsing at a friend’s house, Holiday was brought to Knickerbocker hospital, where she laid waiting for 90 minutes on a stretcher before she was turned away. The hospital said they would not admit a drug addict. One of the ambulance drivers knew who she was, and transported her to another hospital, where she was admitted to the public ward.

Anslinger’s team showed up to the hospital where holiday lay ill. They arrested her for drug possession, claiming to have found heroin hanging on the wall–a very small amount, completely out of her reach–and they summoned an indictment from a grand jury. Although she was in critical condition, they seized everything she had with her in the hospital– a record player, chocolates, flowers, books, a radio, etc.–and handcuffed her to the bed. They took her mugshot, fingerprinted her, and interrogated her without a lawyer–or any other person–present. They turned her friends away, claiming there was no way to visit her, and the hospital removed her from the critical condition list without explanation because Harry Anslinger insisted that they stop administering methadone, the drug that was saving her life. From there, she would not get the care she needed.

Billie Holiday went through drug withdrawal alone, chained to a hospital bed. Protestors gathered outside the hospital, fighting for Holiday’s release, but she died by herself in a hospital room guarded by police officers on July 17, 1959 at age 44. It is said that she had 15 50-dollar bills strapped to her legs, which she’d intended to gift to her nurses that looked after her in her final days. That was all the money she had left, after her long career. The rest had been taken from her by men, and everyone else that took advantage of her fierce talent, her vulnerability, and her generosity.

More than 3,000 people gathered for her funeral, and police cars swarmed the event, fearing a riot or some sort of revolt from angry guests. Instead, the peaceful event was led by the Reverend Eugene Callender, who reported stated in this eulogy, “We should not be here. This young lady was gifted by her creator with tremendous talent … she should have lived to be at least eighty years old.”

How can we use artistic expression today or our other unique talents to help address social ills? How can music be used to provide liberation to others?