Pastoral Scene of the Gallant South

Content warning: images of racial violence.

“Strange Fruit” was written by longtime DeWitt Clinton High School English teacher Abel Meeropol in 1937 (shown above with his sons Robert and Michael, the biological children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, whom Abel and his wife adopted after the Rosenbergs’ execution). The text was first published as a poem in a New York City teachers’ union bulletin.

Meeropol wrote the text after seeing this iconic image of a lynching which took place in Marion, Indiana, in 1930.

The words:

Southern trees bear 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.

Billie Holiday in 1959, the year of her death:

Other versions:

  1. Nina Simone:

2. Which was sampled by Kanye West:

3. John Legend:

4. Jill Scott:

5. India Arie:

6. Operatic mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson and guitarist Tyron Cooper:

7. Late guitarist Jeff Buckley:

8. Katey Sagal as Gemma in the series Sons of Anarchy:

9. Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson with the trio known as Harriet Tubman:

10. Annie Lennox with a string orchestra. She faced pushback for not mentioning the song’s topic of lynching when she did publicity interviews for the album on which it appeared.

Do these cover versions work? Why or why not? Can you find more covers of the song?

How Billie Sang

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Billie Holiday began singing in Harlem jazz clubs at sixteen, and made her first recordings in 1933, at the age of eighteen.

By the time she returned to the studio in 1935, she was a revelation — neither the white balladeers who dominated the Hit Parade nor the black blues queens from whose ranks she emerged provided a precedent for her.

“I’ll Be Seeing You,” sung by Jo Stafford.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“Falling in Love Again,” sung by Marlene Dietrich.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“Gimme a Pigfoot,” as sung by Bessie Smith.

Sung by Billie Holiday.

“I Cover the Waterfront,” as sung by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra credited Holiday as “the greatest single musical influence on me,” but Holiday downplayed the compliment, and admitted only to having told Sinatra

that he didn’t phrase right. He should bend certain notes. He says, “Lady, you aren’t commercial.” But I told him certain note at the end he could bend, and later he said I inspired him. Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Franke with.

As sung by Billie Holiday.

The poet Larry Neal, who was the education director of the Black Panther Party, wrote about Billie in his poem “Malcom X — An Autobiography”:

But there is rhythm here. Its own special substance:
I hear Billie sing, no good man, and dig Prez [saxophonist Lester Young], wearing
the Zoot
suit of life, the pork-pie hat tilted at the correct angle,
through the Harlem smoke of beer and whiskey, I
understand the
mystery of the signifying monkey,
in a blue haze of inspiration, I reach to the totality
of Being.

The Evolution of Bebop

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(Bird on Money, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s tribute to Charlie Parker.)

The song “Cherokee,” by the English dance-band leader Ray Noble:

Charlie Parker’s version:

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Parker said that, when playing “Cherokee,” he realized that the 12 semitones in any scale could take a piece of music from one key into any other, a realization that Arnold Schoenberg had also come to in Vienna earlier in the century.

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“Ko-Ko,” based on the harmonic progression (i.e. chord changes) of “Cherokee”:

How does Parker’s soloing represent a break from that of the saxophone masters who came before him? Can you hear how Lester Young improvises on the melody, while Bird goes deep into the harmony, skews it, and cobbles together new melodies from different scale degrees?

How does Parker’s version of “Lover Man” differ from Coleman Hawkins’s?

By the way, it was Lester Young who famously noted that he couldn’t play a tune because he didn’t know the words.