Billie Holiday

I went searching on Spotify and Youtube Music yesterday for a comprehensive album or playlist of the works of Billie Holiday. Though it’s been at least 35 years since I bought her recordings on vinyl, and a few years later on CD, I was keen to find a good digital collection. You wouldn’t believe how many of the collections online DON’T include the song “Strange Fruit”.

In stark contrast, lyrically, to her other jazz recordings which are lighter love songs, “Strange Fruit” is an allegorical song about the “lynching” of black Americans. By “lynching”, I mean this.

Lynching in the United States was a widespread occurrence beginning in the 1830s Antebellum South until the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the victims of lynching in the U.S. for the first few decades of the phenomenon were predominantly white Southerners, after the American Civil War emancipated roughly 4 million enslaved African-Americans, they became the primary targets of lynchings beginning in the Reconstruction era. Lynchings in the U.S. reached their height from the 1890s to the 1920s, and primarily targeted African-Americans and other ethnic minorities. The American South saw the majority of lynchings as it contained the largest number of African-Americans residing there, although racially motivated lynchings occurred in the Midwest and border states as well.

In my heart of hearts, I can’t understand why a human would ever be involved in such terrible behaviour. The lyrics of the song are so incredibly powerful.

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

The film I saw yesterday, “The United States vs Billie Holiday” argues when she sang the song, she was seen as inciting violence and the growth of the civil rights movement.

The film explores her life story from the perspective she was relentlesly pursued by federal agents to either a) stop her from singing the song or b) stop her career.

That she had a significant problem with drugs made her an easier target. If they couldn’t stop her for the songs, they could pursue her for her drug use.

The film explains her problem with drugs possibly came from her earlier life’s problems, being raised by an abusive woman who was also sex worker, and being sexually abused from an early age. There’s a telling scene in the movie which portrays the idea her own personal sex life as being defined in an abusive way.

Despite the darkness of the film, there are also some wonderful moments where you get to understand her humanity, and the joy she obviously enjoyed from her performances on stage, and her friendships with fellow musicians.

The two key actors deliver wonderful performances: the actor who plays Billie, and the actor who plays Jimmy, who plays the federal agent who became her partner.

There’s a suggestion (or at least that’s how I read it) that Billie’s death (from a drug overdose) was not of her own devices, that she might have been killed.

The film is somewhat harrowing, but it’s still a film I’d highly recommend.

And of course, there’s her wonderful music.

I won’t give away too much about the film, except to say you should stay for the end of the film to see some information about the legal status of lynchings in the US today.

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