I was delivering a series of lessons recently on Rosa Parks, the black American who in 1955 refused to give up her seat to a white woman on the bus; an action that began the stirrings of the black community to seek, demand and fight for equal rights. I say ‘community’ as if there were ‘only’ a few thousand affected people here. By the mid 1950s, America had a population of around 150 million people, 15 million of which was black. So, 10% of the population was denied the right to sit where they wanted on the bus, go to their preferred church, drink in a bar, use a public toilet, sit in the doctor’s waiting room and naturally go about their daily lives as they would have liked to.
The learners in my class were switched on and interested in this. Despite being typical west of Scotland young people living in an area with little diversity, they knew the rights and wrongs of it. Someone pointed out the parallels between Rosa’s story and that of the refugees coming into Britain by boat only to be deported to Rwanda, how they were denied their basic rights and were treated differently. This led to a conversation about Ukrainian and Syrian refugees, some of whom are in the local school community. Regardless of the complexities of these issues, the kids recognised one thing – no one should be treated differently because of where they’re from or due to they way they look, act or talk. In my experience, young folk are quick to speak up on unfairness. They’ll quickly recognise when something is unjust and often be very vocal about it. Their stance on racism and tolerance of others was a small beacon of light in a United Kingdom that is becoming hideously right wing and intolerant, (mis)lead and governed by a party that is verging on the fascistic. These young learners might just offer us a way out.
I really wanted to point my learners towards Billie Holiday‘s Strange Fruit, but I had reservations about the song’s subject matter. Usually when your conscience speaks to you as a teacher, you listen to it. Experience has taught me that the last thing you want or need is an angry parent demanding to know why their 10 year old brought up the subject of mass race lynchings over the dinner table. So, as much as I wanted to, I didn’t.
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
Strange Fruit is a powerful song, grotesque even once you know the subject matter. The lyrics, drawn from a 1937 poem (Bitter Fruit by Abel Meeropol), are a juxtaposition of the natural heaven and the human horrors of the Deep South; the pastoral scenes and bodies swinging in the breeze, the intoxicating smell of magnolia and the bulging eyes and twisted mouths of the lynching victims.
Can you imagine hearing it for the first time, those lines about the bulging eyes and burning flesh jumping out of the grooves and smacking you square on the cheek? Fruit for the crows to pluck? For the sun to rot? Oh! So she’s not singing about normal fruit? Jeez. There’s no way I could’ve played this to primary school children, no matter how mature and switched on they may have been.
Holiday’s eerie and otherworldly voice squeezes its way through the smoky ether of muted trumpet and vampish piano, a night club voice bereft of its usual sass or swing. Her delivery, unsurprisingly, is stately and precise yet understated and ghostly, full of restrained rage at the world in which she lives. Nowadays, it sounds like an ancient artefact beamed in from history, from the time of monochrome and gramophone, of prohibition and inhibition. That hollow-bodied jazz guitar that makes itself known right at the end adds perfect period definition to create a powerful piece of American art.
Holiday was scared to sing it initially. Afraid of what might happen when it was performed, she drew power from the death of her own father (he died of mustard gas poisoning at the end of the first World War, refused treatment due to being black). ‘I have to keep singing it,’ she wrote in her autobiography. ‘Not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South.’
The power of the song was such that during live performances, waiter service was halted at the tables and the room was set in darkness, save one solitary spotlight on Holiday as she sang. It was always her last song of the night. Sometimes the end of the song was met with rapturous applause. At other times, Holiday would be verbally abused for daring to sing it. Some audience members would walk out in protest mid song. What did they have to protest about? Holiday holding a mirror up to society? Promoters asked her not to sing it. Billie’s contract stated that she had the final say on that. Her label, Columbia, wouldn’t handle it. They deemed the song too controversial to release. Unperturbed, Holiday’s manager took it to a small independent label, Commodore, who pressed it and released the song. It garnered little to no airplay, ending up on the blacklist. Blacklisted. There’s some sort of irony there, yet here we are, 84 years later, still discussing its power.
Strange Fruit has lost none of its weight or ability to shock. It’s arguably the first in a rich lineage of protest songs that runs from the pre-rock ‘n roll jazz era to the dust bowl socialism of Woody Guthrie, past Bob Dylan in the ’60s and Stevie Wonder’s socio-political discourse of the ’70s and through Public Enemy to contemporary groups like Sault who are equally as angry about the world in which they live. Always vocal, never silent, calling out unfairness when it arises. Just like those young kids at school.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather
For the wind to suck
For the sun to rot
For the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop