When most people think of protest music, they do not always think of Billie Holiday. The iconic, arguably eccentric, beautiful, and talented singer makes people think of tempestuous love. What audiences are reminded of is that “Strange Fruit” as sung by Holiday, made an impact on listeners and ultimately made her a dangerous person according to certain federal agents. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (now streaming on Hulu) sheds some light on the dynamic between the singer and the FBI agents who were determined to make her stop singing about lynching.
“Strange Fruit” from poem to song
The poem that became the song “Strange Fruit” bears the same name. The poem, by Abel Meeropol, was reportedly inspired by the lynching of two young black men in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Meeropol used a pseudonym, Lewis Allen to write “Strange Fruit.” The work was published in “The New York Teacher in 1937 under title “Bitter Fruit.” Two years later, Meeropol, his wife, and Laura Duncan, a black American singer, began performing the song around New York City, including Madison Square Garden.
According to reports, the owner of New York City’s first integrated nightclub, Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, introduced the song to Holiday. Others claim that it was Robert Gordon, director of Holiday’s show at Cafe Society that made Holiday aware of the song. Either way, the song became legendary for Holiday’s performance of it and for its content. Reports that predate the release of the Hulu movie indicate that a scene dramatized in the movie is based in fact: there were rules surrounding Holiday’s performance of “Strange Fruit.” Lights would be out, no waiters would serve patrons during the song, and a single spotlight would shine on Holiday’s face as she performed. The song was a show closer. The effect? A reflective mood that forces listeners to consider just how awful lynching is. Certainly people knew. “Strange Fruit” just put it to verse and music.
“United States vs. Billie Holiday”: raises more questions about the singer’s life
If there are flaws in this movie, it is the lack of context for some of the scenes. Maybe that is a biased opinion. However, I cannot be the only one who wants to know what happens to a 12- or 13-year-old girl who is told she has to provide for herself. Watching the movie also brought up questions about Holiday’s entourage and general eccentricity: Who were they? How long had they been with her? Are dog funerals in churches legal?
If audiences find the woman and artist portrayed in “United States vs. Billie Holiday” interesting at all, they will want to seek out other sources to contextualize the truth of what has been turned into cinematic drama. There are a host of decent books available about the singer’s life. In addition, there is the 1972 movie starring Diana Ross as Holiday “Lady Sings the Blues.”
However, even without a lot of explanation, “United States vs. Billie Holiday” is riveting, and worth watching at least twice. Most people are probably not aware that Holiday was subject to a government probe. The case against Holiday is proof that effective art can be a threat to some people. That Holiday was able to capture the horrors of lynching with subtle vocal inflections of imagistic lyrics is an artistic victory. That her life was so short creates the tragedy in real life and onscreen.