Today, January 15th, is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. He was an prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement and is probably “best known for his role in the advancement of civil rights using nonviolent civil disobedience” (quoted from Wikipedia’s entry on Dr. King). But even before the activism in the 50s and 60s, there were other forms of non-violent civil rights activism that was already stirring the flame, and that was through music.
The other day, I stepped into a second-hand book store to pass some time and I stumbled upon a copy of the “Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and An Early Cry For Civil Rights”. It is a quick read, and gives a certain perspective on the origins and effect of the song made famous by the legendary singer Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”. The lyrics of the composition are below for reference.
(Wiggins, Pearl, Allan)
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Strange Fruit lyrics (c) Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., EMI Music Publishing
The way we, the consumer, take in media and entertainment today is so different than it was in the past. In the book, I read accounts of when Billie Holiday performed at the Cafe Society, how patrons would stop in their tracks in the middle of the smoke filled room, rendered silent, to listen to the songstress croon this painful song, and how the venue would be silent for minutes after the conclusion because of how powerful the music was. For some reason, I simply can’t imagine a song having that kind of effect on today’s audience. I mean, a song that carries so much weight that it simultaneously scares, enrages and educates people all at the same time.
Maybe “Strange Fruit” is one of the anomalies. Maybe it was the perfect song for the perfect time and place… a song that hits the musical trifecta…. Now THAT must have been something. That’s a feeling I’d love to soak in. I don’t think I’ve ever personally experienced it … and truth be told, I doubt I ever will get to experience something like it.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of great songwriters out there, and I want to be in an audience one night, in an intimate venue, where the lights are low, and the singer blows my mind with powerful lyrics that shake up and stir a deep societal pain. I want to be there when a singer is singing to me some truth that can’t be denied … some truth that makes it uneasy for me to listen, but I can’t not listen to it because it’s verity. But I just don’t know if music can do what it did back in 1939. Music is powerful, but I don’t know if music can hit that kind of nerve anymore. And if it does, how can it rise up from the hundreds of thousands of other songs that flood the internet? Cream used to rise to the top, but does it anymore?
I can hope. There seems to be so many problems in society these days, maybe some songwriter can bring it on home for me … write some lyrics that could stand alone as poetry … write some lyrics whose essence is coaxed out through the melodic and rhythmic flow of the music. I’m looking for music that means something and speaks to a greater evil in our society that needs fixing…. something that everybody can related to, and gets people to start talking about ways to get it right…
You got something for me?