Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, And An Early Cry For Civil Rights

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9780762406777: Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, And An Early Cry For Civil Rights

From four-time Pulitzer Prize nominee David Margolick, STRANGE FRUIT explores the story of the memorable civil rights ballad made famous by Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. The song's powerful, evocative lyrics-written by a Jewish communist schoolteacher who, late in life, adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg-portray the lynching of a black man in the South. Holiday's performances sparked conflict and controversy wherever she went, and the song has since been covered by Lena Horne, Tori Amos, Sting, and countless others. Margolick's careful reconstruction of the story behind the song, portions of which have appeared in Vanity Fair, includes a discography of "Strange Fruit" recordings as well as newly uncovered photographs that capture Holiday in performance at Greenwich Village's Café Society. A must for jazz aficionados.

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Review:

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.

About the Author:

David Margolick is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. Prior to that, he was the national legal affairs correspondent for the New York Times. He has written four books: Undue Influence: The Epic Battle for the Johnson & Johnson Fortune, At the Bar: Passions and Peccadillos of American Lawyers (a collection of his law columns for the New York Times), Strange Fruit and Beyond Glory: Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling, and a World on the Brink. He has been nominated four times for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in New York City.

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