There are precious few, if any, performances nowadays of a certain landmark song in jazz. Granted, this was a song very much of its time; all the same, it’s important to remember where we’ve been. It’s not a standard in the classic sense, but marked out jazz as an art form that could be used to protest, to shock listeners into affecting social change. Until the 1930’s jazz had been subversive without ever directly addressing the culture trying to suppress it.
It was in 1937 that Abel Meeropol, a schoolteacher from the Bronx, published his poem “Bitter Fruit” in The New York Teacher. He had not long before seen a photo of a 1930 double lynching in Indiana and couldn’t rest until he expressed his outrage at the status—or perhaps total lack—of race relations in the U.S. He soon set the words to music and the piece became known as “Strange Fruit,” a song Billie Holiday embodied from her very first performance of it in 1939. She would later grow possessive of the song, as though it belonged to her, which, in many ways, it did. Still does, as a matter of fact, because though Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson, among others, have recorded spectacular interpretations, none can top Holiday.