Updated: Aug 17
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The lights were dimmed low in Cafe Society, spirals of cigar smoke whirled through the air and the smell of liquor-heavy breath permeated the room. Couples swayed to and fro to the jazz musician playing their typical swing, a throwback to the Jazz age before those depressive days of the 1930s. One could nearly forget they were in segregated America at this basement club situated in Greenwich Village; the first integrated jazz club in America. Billie Holiday was among this multicultural crowd brought together by their collective love of jazz. The next performer took the stage and it was not long till she took the crowd, spellbinding them with the haunting words of the song “Strange Fruit.” This song, a protest to the lynchings in the south, would become Billie Holiday’s signature, played at the end of each performance she gave. However, few people know the history behind the song and the stories of the people who gave it life, even when the country gave them death.
Abel Meeropol was a Jewish school teacher in the Bronx who was deeply disturbed by the ongoing racism in American society (NPR). One day in 1937, he saw a photograph of a lynching from 1930. In an article by Elizabeth Blair, Peabody Award-winning senior producer on the Arts Desk of NPR News, she says “the photograph ‘haunted’ him ‘for days.’ So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication.” He then set his poetry to music which he performed with his wife, and jazz singer Lauren Duncan (Liz Fields). It was not until 1939, after that night at Cafe Society, that Billie Holiday was given the rights to the song by Meeropol and became an instant, though dangerously controversial, success.
Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in 1915, is known from her unique rhythmic styles and ascendency into the genres of jazz and the blues to her life harried with abuse, systematic racism, and addiction (Spencer). From when she was a small child in Harlem Holiday would listen to jazz music where her mother worked, singing along to the likes of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. However, this radio was set up at a brothel, the place of work where prostitutes labored. Holiday was exposed to sex labor from an early age and was eventually trafficked when she was an adolescent. In the podcast People In America by Shirley Gritthith and Steve Ambers they say, “Billie Holiday had a tragic childhood. When she was ten, a man sexually attacked her. She was accused of causing the man to attack her and sent to a prison for children.” After her time at the laborhouse Holiday looked to make her way in life and started singing at clubs. It was at one of these jazz era temples of music that Billie Holiday found herself face-to-face with none-other that John Hammond, a well know music producer and anti-racist who saw jazz music as the reconciliation that America needed. In a report by PBS it says that “She was only twenty when the well-connected jazz writer and producer John Hammond heard her fill in for a better-known performer. Soon after, he reported that she was the greatest singer he had ever heard.” Hammond became Holiday’s surrogate father for her musical career, ushering her into the jazz high life with many other famous people of the 1930s.
However, Holiday’s songs were not all about heartbreak and the ecstasy of love that most jazz music is about. Her song Strange Fruit became an instant success. The haunting lyrics poetically describing the scene of a lynching combined with Holiday's mournful voice created a dirge of protest. Many people were upset by her singing the song, upset enough to exit a club when the waiters stopped ushering food and the spotlight shone on Holiday's carnation-adorned ebony hair. At this point, Holiday’s already-familiar personage in the music world and her voice’s place of honor in America’s living room radios coalesces into infamy with one specific person in the United State’s government: Anslinger. In an interview with WNYC, the author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari said,“To Harry Anslinger, Billie Holiday was like the symbol of everything that America had to be afraid of.” He disdained jazz with racist reasoning and seeing this black woman, Holiday, who was known to be addicted to drugs, take the stage and voice the injustices of America was to him, the antithesis of everything he believed. Known by even white Americans as an extreme racist in the 1920s (Chang) Anslinger made it his quest to end not just Billie Holiday’s career, but her life as well. In an article on Strange Fruit, journalist for PBS Liz Fields continues, “It became known as a powerful protest anthem that irked the conservative US government at a time when it was starting to crack down on suspected communists in the entertainment industry and beyond.”
Why Communism you ask? This is where the writer of Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropal makes an appearance in this tale once again, if only on the sidelines: he was a Communist. Anslinger thus begins a fight against Holiday. First, he simply tells her to stop singing the song. However, when she refuses and continues to sing it at the end of every one of her venues he sends in an agent on the inside. Jimmy Fletcher ultimately manipulates Billie Holiday with the help of her physically abusive husband and frames her with the possession of illegal substances with the result being that Holiday is arrested and sentenced to prison for one year. By the time Holiday has made it out of prison she has lost her right to perform at any venue that serves alcohol, but this does not stop Holiday’s tenacity to not be silenced. To Anslinger’s chagrin, Holiday performs her piece de resistance “[at a] sold-out show at Carnegie Hall, a venue she went on to perform at more than 22 times” (Chang). Billie Holiday’s story unfortunately takes a final degradation when she collapses in her apartment over a decade after being released from prison. She was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed with liver failure, along with withdrawing from her heroin addiction it was only because of her friend Maely Dufty that Holiday was treated for her potentially life threatening withdrawal (Chang). However, Anslinger was still prowling after Holiday. Holiday was arrested on the bed of her hospital and then with the recommendation of Anslinger the doctors took Holiday off of manethonsone. Holiday died ten days later (Chang). While Billie Holiday’s poor decision in romantic partners and substance abuse were along her route to death, could not we say that they were more akin to symptoms of a greater evil, one that she did not control? A greater evil such as being sexually assualted as a child to being framed repeatedly by the racist policies and practices of The Bearae of Federal Narcotics. Holiday died at the hands of the government and societies assault on her humanity.
Billie Holiday sang against government sanctioned death and yet her life ultimately ended by the very subject she protested. Five years before Holiday’s devastating death, two other lives were taken and four lives changed drastically by the government sanctioned death. The Rosenbergs are a popular couple to mention when one wants to surmise the horrors of McCarthyism, also known as the red scare, where Communists were under intense scrutiny by the government. Intense controversy began to foment when the court indicted Mr and Mrs. Rosenberg with espionage, even though there was barely sufficient evidence beyond the fact that they were known for their politics leaning left. When the couple was then given the death penalty at their sentence, reknowned French philosper and writer Jean-Paul Sartre called it a “legal lynching” (History). When the couple was put to death in the electric chair on June 19th, 1953. They left two sons as orphans (Blair). These two boys, whose parents had been murdered by the government were met with a lack of support even from family members with the danger of being even slightly involved in Communist ideals. However, when they found themselves at a Christmas party that December in the house of W.E. DeBois, they met the man who fought against government-sanctioned death, now no longer a part of the Communist party: Abel Meeropal, their future Father (Blair). Abel Meeropal, the writer of Strange Fruit, was affected deeply by the very thing he fought against, the orphaning of his adoptive sons. Billie Holiday was framed and systematically murdered by the government’s racist ideals when she protested in song the lynchings in the south. The Rosenbergs, victims to the most well-known government sanctioned death: the electric chair. All their stories are connected and juxtaposed by the very thing they fought against: unjust death.
As of January 2022, there are 2,436 people on death row. Facing execution for their crimes (deathpenaltyinfo.org). While government-sanction death may not manifest itself as graphically as it did in the song Strange Fruit, and the electric chair, there is no doubt that it is still rampant throughout our society. You may see government-sanctioned death as abortion, you may see it as the systematic killing of those who are oppressed in our society from trauamatic histories, or you see it as a fight for the lives of each of those 2,436 souls. Whether you are fighting against one or two of those or all three we can each make a difference through our collective creativity, our unity against violence, and our abundant love for one another. As MLK said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And in justice there is love, where there can be no fear.