By Nick Dedina
There are often false narratives we tell ourselves so that we can simplify, and beautify, the past and erase aspects of the present that we are uncomfortable with.
Take the view that the olden times glowed with a rosy hue, and that people were more innocent way back when. When filmmakers and TV showrunners want to describe the first half of the 20th Century they go straight to goofy old hits like “How Much Was That Doggie in the Window,” and “Rockin’ Robin” or put a sexy Hollywood sheen on bad behavior with classics such as “Jail House Rock.”
But dig a little deeper into the Classic American Songbook and you can quickly discover the hardest, toughest ills of society being brought out into the light, dissected, and questioned in ways that are still all too relevant today.
Often, with classic songs, the transgressions described are not immediately obvious to modern listeners, because the artistry involved – skirting around censorship – didn’t always make things explicit. When Frank Sinatra sings “Street of Dreams” it isn’t openly apparent the lyrics are about a junkie’s delusions of a better world found when high, or that Peggy Lee’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed” is the parting advice of a wife leaving an alcoholic partner who can’t beat the demon drink.
But, sometimes, with the Great American Songbook, everything is all right there – out in plain sight for all to see. Listen to the still-blistering “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” in which a street beggar with his hand out is revealed to be a World War I combat veteran with the poetic lines, “Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell/And, I was the kid with the drum.” Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize for Literature for his collective lyrics. How about a retroactive Nobel for E.Y. Harburg for writing those lyrics as well as other masterworks such as “Over the Rainbow?” I don’t think Dylan would disagree.
Once I built a railroad, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?Once I built a tower up to the sun
Brick and rivet and lime
Once I built a tower, now it’s done
Brother, can you spare a dime?
And like the charred economic landscape painted in “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” Billie Holiday’s searing reading of “Strange Fruit” still has the power to startle. It casts a dark spell and lingers in the air long after the song is over. Even if you are a newcomer to “Strange Fruit” it is nearly impossible not to understand the sickening historical tale it tells in its opening stanza:
Southern trees bearing strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Part of White America grew up believing that the space “Strange Fruit” inhabited was overblown propaganda created to make Southerners feel guilty about a noble past. Another part of White America believed the song described an ugly and disturbing part of our legacy that was, thankfully, slowly receding from view. As the documentary Always in Season shows, the history of lynching is an open wound that is still painfully alive in the African American community.
The words to “Strange Fruit” were written by Abel Meeropol, a political activist, and tunesmith, from the Bronx. Meeropol, who wrote under the name Lewis Allan in honor of two of his children who did not survive childbirth, was responding to a photo of an actual lynching in the news. The twisted, broken black bodies in the photo are only half the story of the photo. The other half is the calmly festive atmosphere of the white crowd. Some are already moving on, looking indifferent to the horrors behind them, while a man points at a corpse in the same way you would use to point out a fancy car parked down the street.
The story of this remarkable song, its creator, and how they intersected with the brilliant Billie Holiday was told in the PBS documentary Strange Fruit. The song “Strange Fruit” was initially only known to activists, especially in the New York area. In 1939, Lady Day started performing it during an engagement at Café Society, the first integrated night club in New York City. Holiday was initially worried about singing “Strange Fruit” live, fearing for her safety (and career backlash) but its impact was so profound when it was performed every night that she had to move it to the end of the show – nothing could follow it.
This was during Billie Holiday’s peak as a popular artist and her contract was with mighty Decca Records–which refused to record “Strange Fruit.” Holiday thus turned to Milt Gabler (the record store-owning uncle of Billy Crystal), who put it out on Commodore Records. The song became an instant smash and by 1999, Time Magazine named it as the Song of the 20th Century.
Abel Meeropol, along with Frank Sinatra, would go on to win a special Oscar for the song, “The House I Live In” (also used as the title of a documentary), which describes a nation that has chosen to be a special land where different races and ethnicities can coexist, even prosper, together.
The confused facts around the tragic death of Lennon Lacy and the gripping tale told in Always in Season shows that classic songs are not stuffy museum pieces that paint false portraits of rosier times. Instead, they are timeless, with a few even speaking about the most complex issues of today — a legacy of violence, hurt and fear for some Americans and one of defensiveness and deflection for others.
It remains up to us whether “Strange Fruit” will truly became a fascinating, fading, view into an evil thread running through American history or “The House I Live In” will be the relic; a rusty old view of an American dream that never quite came to be.
Nick Dedina has worked in the digital music industry since its inception, helping to launch, populate, and program a number of globally successful streaming services along the way. He has done everything from write an entire SF Jazz catalog and offer on-screen commentary in a feature-length BBC music documentary to create online radio stations for iconic brands. He currently manages music services at PlayStation Music. Anybody who is interested in Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra may want to pull up a chair, buy him a drink, and tell Mr. Dedina why these are not the two greatest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. He blogs about music at Nick’s Vinyl Picks.