Pastoral Scene of the Gallant South

Content warning: graphic images of racial violence.

“Strange Fruit” was written by a longtime English teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, 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:

A beautiful interview on CBS This Morning with Meeropol’s sons. Note the family’s connection to James Baldwin and W.E.B. Du Bois.

Other versions:

  1. Nina Simone:

2. Which was sampled by Kanye West, in a song that has nothing to do with what Meeropol wrote and Billie Holiday et al. sang:

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. Andra Day, who played Billie Holiday in the 2021 film The U.S. vs. Billie Holiday:

11. Annie Lennox with a string orchestra. She faced pushback for neglecting to mention 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?

Do you think a white artist should sing this song?

Can you find even more covers of the song?

Another song by Abe Meeropol with a strong social message (T/W: contains racist slur against Japanese):

As sung by the great Paul Robeson:

And by Sam Cooke:

Selling Cars and Feeling Good

Pianist, singer, and activist Nina Simone’s 1965 recording of the song “Feeling Good” was used in a fascinating 2018 ad for a Buick model made in Shanghai.

The song begins with Simone’s unaccompanied voice, and gradually adds instrumental parts verse by verse, becoming a big-band anthem with a full horn section. The Buick ad uses an instrumental clip from the song around the 1:00 mark.

The ad uses documentary footage of China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, including images of Mao Zedong, student Communist rallies, and so-called “struggle sessions,” during which “enemies of the Revolution” were forced to publicly admit to various crimes against the state while crowds beat and humiliated them. Ominous music plays in the background as a raspy-voiced narrator refers in vague language to those dark times, saying that “after those trials, we all rallied around what was right . . . all that matters now is what lies ahead,” as video of vibrant street life and various homegrown small entrepreneurs — an old woman carrying a bundle, various outdoor vendors — is shown. Then, to the text “Wealth is back,” a Buick GL8 goes speeding out of a garage as the Nina Simone song plays.

Why do you think Buick’s advertising executives juxtaposed a song by a controversial African-American artist with disturbing images of China’s troubled past, to sell a luxury car to the emerging Chinese upper classes? Is this a good choice? What does black music mean in this context?

And, going from the particular to the universal: do you think that appropriating sources and remixing them fundamentally changes their meaning? Or does the meaning of the original sources stay the same? Is the song “Feeling Good” fair game for remixing for the purpose of injecting capitalism into a Communist country?

Mood Indigo

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In addition to blues tonality, improvisation, virtuosity, freedom in melodic phrasing, propulsive rhythm, and harmonic complexity, one of the defining characteristic of jazz is the way the standard jazz ensembles — the particular mix of instruments — sound together. This sound is called timbre. The distinctive timbre of early jazz comes from the use of brass instruments like the trumpet, cornet, and trombone. The rhythm was laid down either by an upright bass or by a tuba. The Dixieland ensembles also included clarinet, drums, piano, and banjo or mandolin.

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In the 1920s and 1930s, musically-literate jazz musicians began to put bands together and write out arrangements for them — a separate piece of sheet music, or “part,” for every instrumental section.  These arrangements were made to mimic the sound of Dixieland improvisation, but were in fact written out. Jelly Roll Morton was a pioneer in notated jazz; in his 1926 “Dead Man’s Blues,” he sought to imitate the sound of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral.

In this way, composers and bandleaders like Don Redman, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington created the “big band” sound. Ellington, a classically-trained pianist and composer, was especially interested in the different timbres/sounds he could get from various instrumental sections. In 1927, he and his band were hired as house band at the Cotton Club — a segregated speakeasy run by the Mafia, which barred Black patrons, but which was nevertheless the most prestigious venue for Black musicians.

Ellington’s piece “Mood Indigo” — which he claimed to have written in 15 minutes while waiting for his mother to finish cooking dinner — features Ellington on piano, followed by a muted trumpet-trombone-saxophone trio and then a clarinet solo, all of which lend different sounds to the piece. Ellington flips the standard practice of instrumental arranging by having the trombone — an instrument with a very low timbre — play high in its register, and the clarinet, an instrument that can play soaring high notes, play in the lowest part of its register.

Notice also that, while the orchestra is playing written-out parts, the clarinetist (Barney Bigard) takes a semi-improvised solo against the muted but lush and complex sonic background. This would become a hallmark of the big band sound.

What do you think the overall atmosphere of the piece is? What did Ellington mean by “Mood Indigo,” and how does he use instruments to convey that?

Lyricist Irving Mills later added lyrics, and the song became a jazz standard.

Bass player Charles Mingus’s arrangement. How is it different from Ellington’s?

Ella Fitzgerald sings it as a contemplative ballad:

Nina Simone plays and sings it as a gospel-inspired up-tempo:

Birmingham Sunday

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On Sunday, September 15, 1963, the KKK bombed of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four young girls on their way to Bible study were killed.

The (white) folksinger Richard Fariña wrote a song to commemorate the tragedy, “Birmingham Sunday”:

The tune of Fariña’s song is taken from the Scottish folksong “I Loved A Lass.”

Fariña attended Cornell University, and wrote a comic novel about his time there called Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, whose title he took from a song by Furry Lewis:

(Incidentally, Furry Lewis’s song, “Turn Your Money Green,” was covered by other white folksingers.)

Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday” was made famous by his sister-in-law, Joan Baez:

Rhiannon Giddens covered it on her album Freedom Highway:

Giddens’s arrangement of the song begins with a quotation from Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A Major:

Why do you think Giddens references Mozart in her version of “Birmingham Sunday”?

Why do you think that, until Giddens, only white artists recorded the song?

Nina Simone’s response to the bombing, and other Southern atrocities:

Poet Dudley Randall wrote “Ballad of Birmingham” about the bombing. His poem mirrors the form of British folk ballads: a dialogue between two characters, in this case, the mother and child, followed by a narrative of the ironic events befalling the unsuspecting protagonists (the irony, in this case, because the mother believes her daughter will be safe in church).

Ballad of Birmingham

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)

“Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren’t good for a little child.”

“But, mother, I won’t be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free.”

“No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead

And sing in the children’s choir.”

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
“O, here’s the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?”

Listen to Dudley Randall read the poem, at 7:05:

http://www.loc.gov/item/91740723

We tend to think of the Civil Rights Movement taking place in the form of marches and protests, and being litigated in the courts. When we think of the segregation that the Movement worked to dismantle, however, we need to remember that it applied in all public and private spaces that Black people lived, worked, studied, and worshipped in.