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STRANGE FRUIT by David Margolick


Billie Holiday, CafÇ Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights

by David Margolick

Pub Date: May 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-7624-0677-1
Publisher: Running Press

Expanding on an article that originated in the pages of Vanity Fair, Margolick (At the Bar, 1995) traces the relationships

between "Strange Fruit" (a 1930s ballad describing a lynching), Billie Holiday (its best-known interpreter), and those who heard

it sung by her.

In 1937 a New York union publication printed a poem entitled "Bitter Fruit" that described the sight of a lynching. The

writer, Abel Meeropol, was a 27-year-old communist and schoolteacher who frequently set his own words to music. He did so

once more with the poem, and when a director from Caf‚ Society (the progressive Greenwich Village nightspot) heard the song

and brought it to the attention of Holiday, she added it—now known as "Strange Fruit"—to her repertoire. The song was an

immediate sensation (the political left, in particular, took it up almost as a kind of anthem), although it appears that Holiday

herself was initially unaware of what precisely it was describing. Margolick quickly sorts through the much-argued particulars

that led to the meeting of song and singer—and which led in turn to the confrontation between Holiday’s audience and the subject.

The story of how white impresarios pushed an already-notorious black performer to sing about something as barbarous as lynching

makes the first third of the book fascinating cultural history. The pages documenting reaction to the song over the years quote

sources ranging from Civil War historian Shelby Foote to pop musician Natalie Merchant and—like the book as a whole—have

a where-were-you-when-you-first-heard-it tone that gives them the earnest, if lightweight, feel of a network documentary.

Although Margolick falls considerably short of the ambitions suggested by his subtitle, he nevertheless captures divergent

stories of song and singer that will appeal to fans of Holiday and pop history. (14 b&w photos) (First printing of 50,000; first

serial to Vanity Fair; $50,000 ad/promo; author tour; radio satellite tour)