Billie Holiday Sings "Strange Fruit"

We often listen to Billie Holiday albums on slow-moving Sunday mornings. This version of "Strange Fruit" is remarkable and haunting to watch.

(Shawn Connally and Bruce Stewart are guest bloggers)


  1. Arguably the greatest singing voice of the last century even though she had only a one octave range. Protools and autotuner can’t make you’re voice sound like that (thank gawd). I would love to see her audition on American Idol, not sure she would make it to the second round of cuts. Randy: “I’m feelin’ ya dawg, but you’re just not hittin’ the notes.”

  2. I have a pretty strong reaction against the notion that Obama’s election means that America has truly come a long way……but Billie never could have conceived of Jan. 20th 2009, that’s for sure.

  3. I’ve heard of this song, but never seen it performed. Watching it gave me the chills like nothing else.

  4. One of the most striking aspects of this song to me is that the author was Jewish, a man named Abel Meeropol who wrote it as a poem decrying the horror of lynchings in the 1930’s.

    Meerpool and his wife later adopted the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. That’s a biography I’d like to read!

  5. Anyone who tries to deny what southern blacks went through should only have to listen to this song, watch this video. There is more truth in her voice, in her eyes about what black people were forced to endure than can be expressed in mere words.

  6. The Lady was the greatest. I consider seeing her one of the three great Jazz fan achievements of my life: Lady Day, Bird, and Monk. My buddy approached her at the bar between sets in a club and said, shyly (he was 20), “Miss Holiday, I think you’re the greatest singer ever.”

    She said, “No shit, sailor? Then buy me a drink.”

  7. Them thats got shall get
    Them thats not shall lose
    So the Bible said and it still is news
    Mama may have, papa may have
    But God bless the child thats got his own
    Thats got his own

    Yes, the strong gets more
    While the weak ones fade
    Empty pockets dont ever make the grade
    Mama may have, papa may have
    But God bless the child thats got his own
    Thats got his own

    Money, youve got lots of friends
    Crowding round the door
    When youre gone, spending ends
    They dont come no more
    Rich relations give
    Crust of bread and such
    You can help yourself
    But dont take too much
    Mama may have, papa may have
    But God bless the child thats got his own
    Thats got his own

    Mama may have, papa may have
    But God bless the child thats got his own
    Thats got his own
    He just worry bout nothin
    Cause hes got his own

  8. @mgfarrelly, are you aware of her cover of “Eine Yiddishe Momme?” No kidding, google it. She sings this yiddish classic, it’s amazing.

  9. Haunting and intense.

    Buddy how’s that autobiography coming? Maybe you just keep posting and we can try and reassemble your story, but please add a few well chosen date stamps.

  10. There’s no autobiography, Foetusnail, just an old man’s mental snapshot album. Live long enough and it gets pretty full. I was always at home with work site/barracks bullshit sessions — you know, piling one story upon another, all night long. You see, you listen, you share. That’s how we learn.

    There’s no way to document this, I suppose, but it’s my opinion that American Jews were disproportionately representative in all aspects of American Jazz. For instance, Benny Goodman was the first white band leader to include black musicians, and Artie Shaw scandalized the squares when he hired Billie Holiday. The list of Jazz Jews is enormous, from composers, lyricists, arrangers, musicians, critics, advocates, managers, et-cetera et-cetera. As I say, it’s wildly disproportionate.

  11. disproportionate? yes. but it makes sense. Jews were also socially outcast- but less so. They had more money (and therefore had more connections with club owners) and klezmer fits with early jazz really well. well modern jazz, too. Just look at John Zorn or Don Byron.

    So the music was fairly compatible, and while it was scandalous for a Jew to play “negro music” it was less scandalous than for other white people, and they maintained connections with, say, radio that the blacks largely didn’t have. Benny Goodman could walk in the front door of a club and ask to talk to the owner without being kicked out or even beat up for the affront.

  12. Buddy, I know. I just always find your posts interesting and entertaining. You’ve lived through a lot and done some cool shit old man, and I’m betting it would be a great read.

    Happy New Year sir, you’re on my list when the greens are done.

  13. Buddy66 & Baldhead: you should really listen to Michael Goldfarb’s Jews and Blues I mentioned @ #22 if you haven’t.

    Baldhead: Ragtime was considered Negro music, and the Maple Leaf Rag was the first piece of sheet music to sell over one million copies and was played throughout the parlors of WASPdom. I think you are way off base. Whites were all too eager to play and exploit Black music.

  14. I love Billie Holiday. Have you guys heard Etta James’s album of Holiday covers? It’s sublime. Well, not the band Sublime which is/was extremely cool in the day but sublime as in the ineffable name of God.

  15. Buddy 66, what did Bird say? Was Diz with him? Or how about Thelonious? Were you part of the scene on 52nd st?

    I’m far too young, born decades after most of these people passed away, but I would have given my eye teeth to be in New York between 1945 – 1960. On any any given night you could have seen from Cannonball Adderly to Lester Young performing.

    Speaking of Lady day, I encourage all of you to go back and check out her work with the Prez (Lester young).

    Speaking of Jazz and Jewish musicians, the bbc has an audio slide show of how the influences moved back and forth.

    It’s not a case of theft, but fusion as different musical traditions melted,morphed, and created something wholly new.

  16. Hey Buddy, if you ain’t writing it down, how about you leave me your head in an ice box, just in case, ,you know? I absolutely promise to keep it separate from the snacks fridge. Not now, of course, just when you think you’re done with it? Whaddya say?

  17. @FoetusNail,
    I love greens! There are a lot of cooks among the Mutants. (A thread was suggested.) I spent a part of New Year’s Eve day making a pot of Union Pacific chili. Xopher, for instance, seems a kind of gourmet.

    I should thank you for that link. I missed it before I commented. The interplay between black and white musicians, even when they couldn’t play together, was made possible by mass produced recordings. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that upon hearing Stan Getz blow some strange and wonderful changes I asked a friend (Jewish) where he got that stuff, and he replied, “A thousand years of Jewish tradition.”

    We all know Jellyroll invented Jazz — at least that’s what he said. He also said, perhaps more accurately, that a New Orleans musician had to know ALL KINDS of music, especially a whorehouse “professor” like himself. Most of those old cats could read and write music, in defiance of the “unlettered and illiterate” myth of the origins of Jazz. Oddly, the one who actually couldn’t was the undisputed giant of Jazz — Louis Armstrong! Go figure.

    I didn’t get to NYC until it was almost over. I saw Bird and Billie in Detroit, and Monk at the Blackhawk in SF. Bird had a bad couple of nights with his horn, it squeaked too much, and he was kind of pissed off at himself. Billie was sublime, as low-key and laid-back as you could ask for. Monk, ah! you can hear what I heard on the first Blackhawk gig recordings.

    We were called “band rats.” We’d pile in a car and make the gigs in Detroit and Chicago, following the bands. Be bop was king and we came when called. Most of us were kid jitterbugs who converted from swing to the new thing. 1944-1958 was the Golden Age. It opened in 1945 with Bird and Diz, and ended in 1958 with Miles’s “Kind of Blue,” IMHO the best jazz album ever. I stopped dancing and started digging in 1947, a 16-year-old tone deaf jitterbug with a new pair of late-night sunglasses.

    One head on ice coming up — in about 20 years. Mom’s 97 and I’ve got Medicare.

  18. (blush) I cook a bit. Not a chef chef. I did make pasta with an asiago cream sauce (flavored with garlic and carmelized onions) for New Year’s Eve…and ate it alone.

    Next year in Jerusalem^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H with company!

  19. Buddy66: I never got to see Stan Getz live, but in my book he was one of the most beautiful tenor players ever. His melodic genius always shone through, whether he was playing with Woody Herman, J.J. Johnson, Chet Baker, Tom Jobim, Chic Corea, or even Barry Manilow. I have no idea why he isn’t higher up in the pantheon of sax players. Perhaps it was the Bossa Nova thing, which I personally love.

    On Louis Armstrong: the Black and Jewish community in New Orleans was integrated, and Pops was raised by Jews, who bough him his first horn, and he wore the Magen David around his neck his whole live in gratitude. So if Louis Armstrong was the progenitor of jazz, he was most certainly exposed to Russian-Jewish folk music in his youth. Another connection? King Oliver’s Band did sort of sound like it could easily play klezmer.

    I too came from the Midwest. Spent quite a few nights listening to Irv Williams talk about the old days with the Eckstine Big Band et al.

  20. My first exposure to this song was from listening to Nina Simone. Nina is my all time favorite jazz singer and I was very privileged to see her perform this song in concert before she died recently. I still get chills every time I hear her rendition of Strange Fruit (among other greats).

    Unquestionably, Billy Holiday is #1 when it comes to being the greatest jazz singer of the century however, Nina Simone trails in at a very close second.

    I’ve never heard (or seen for that matter) Billy’s version of Strange Fruit until today, and I must concede to the fact that Billy’s voice and tone is a bit more complementary to this song verses Nina’s. Billy really got it right down to the core with this song. Musically, both Billy’s and Nina’s renditions are the same.

    Billy Holiday may be the greatest female jazz singer of our time and of the century, and Nina Simone is the best in our generation (since she was quite a bit younger than Billy). I don’t think we’ll see talent such as theirs emerge any time soon.

  21. Finally got my sound and then my video to work. My gods that’s an impressive performance. She looks like she can just barely stand to sing it. It’s like she’s tearing out her own internal organs and showing them to the audience.

    I mean, I knew Lady Day was good, but wow.

    FoetusNail 38: Happy New Year to you as well, and to all here. Actually the company was kind of whiny and boring, but watching TV a lot helped, and he was much improved by morning, and still better now.

  22. @Pilcrow: The Etta James Christmas CD is our absolute favorite holiday music! Bruce never liked listening to Christmas music until we got hers. Oh, and we like the band Sublime as well!

    And @Everyone Else: Amazing info and comments! We’re gonna go right out and find some Jews & Blues DVDs, books, etc. And a big thanks for all the other links to more great music!

  23. Re Stan Getz,

    The top tenor position has long been a hard fought position. There are so many great players out there and always have been. It was Getz’s misfortune (or fortune) to be active at the same time as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins (Who incidentally, can still play the hell out of the tenor), Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and early Micheal Brecker.

    Also Getz, was the victim of being considered a lightweight,for going lyrical while jazz was going harder “Getz/Gilberto” came out the same year as “A Love Supreme” and “Spiritual Unity” (by Albert Ayler)

  24. “Strange Fruit.”

    Powerful. Very moving.

    A graphic reminder of a very horrible time in this nation’s history.

    Thank non-descript,impersonal, relativistic life force of Gaia this time has past.

  25. An iconic talent who reached right in to the audience’s heart and soul. Not just a lady – IMO, a queen. This is the kind of depth few performers ever attain. Brilliant! An elegy evocative of irreparable harm and suffering.

  26. Mindpowered: Don’t forget Coltrane was often criticized for lack of lyricism, whence the Ballads album and the recording with Johnny Hartman. ‘Trane could certainly play sweetly, and Getz could play hard bop. Let’s compare:

    It’s just personal taste, but Getz’s inventiveness impresses more than Contrane’s “sheets of sound.” What’s more, I don’t think anyone considered him “lightweight” amongst his fellow musicians. Just consider with whom he played.

    I don’t know if I agree Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young fall into hard players category–but if you’re just talking great players, Ben Webster would have to complete the trifecta of early tenor legends.

    Wayne Shorter I believe is still going strong as well.

  27. I watched the Bob Dylan documentary “No Direction Home” a few hours after seeing this post, and whaddaya know, that film includes a clip of this.

  28. Oh I’m not dissing Getz. I have a couple of recordings of him wailing away on “Cherokee”.

    It’s my point that given the context of the time Jazz was moving away from the lyrical towards harder edged abstraction, it was the age of Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, Pharoh Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Eric Dolphy and late period John Coltrane.

    By the end of the decade it would be Bitches Brew, Weather Report and The Mahavishnu Orchestra. Getz was just buried underneath and has not yet “resurfaced”.

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