Looking Back At Jazz Singer Billie Holiday's Influence On American Music

Aug 22, 2019
Originally published on August 22, 2019 7:57 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Jazz singer Billie Holiday brought emotion to every note she sang.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY HE CALLS ME")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Crazy in love, I'd say.

CORNISH: But beyond music, she was known for her outspoken opposition to racial injustice. NPR's series Turning the Tables reinterprets the history of American music by putting women front and center; today the hidden story of one of Billie Holiday's biggest hits, as told by the hosts of NPR's history podcast Throughline, Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUND ABDELFATAH: In the late 1930s, Billie Holiday was singing in a club in New York City, and she decided to try out a new song.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI: It was called "Strange Fruit."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit.

FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: And Billie Holiday sang it in that way, that very slow tempo way. The poem - because it is a poem - is full of imagery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Black bodies swinging...

GRIFFIN: Kind of sensual imagery.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) ...In the southern breeze.

GRIFFIN: This metaphor of...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

GRIFFIN: ...Black bodies as the fruit on the lynching tree. The tree itself is imbued with this history of racial trauma and racial violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Scent of magnolia...

GRIFFIN: You know, calling on our sense of smell - scent of magnolia, smooth and sweet, right?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

GRIFFIN: You have that magnolia blending with the smell of burning flesh, which talks about the kind of barbaric ritual of lynching. It's a very explicit, difficult song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) ...For the wind to suck...

GRIFFIN: I'm Farah Jasmine Griffin.

ABDELFATAH: She's a professor at Columbia University and author of the book "If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search Of Billie Holiday."

ARABLOUEI: "Strange Fruit" is, at its core, a protest song - graphic and unflinching in its imagery, in its rejection of white supremacy and violence against African Americans.

GRIFFIN: And she decided that she wanted to record it, and her record label would not. So she took it to a small independent label and recorded it.

ABDELFATAH: In 1939, "Strange Fruit" was released, and it became an instant hit. But pretty quickly, it began to attract negative attention. Billie Holiday got a lot of pushback from club owners who would tell her not to sing it.

JOHANN HARI: You've got to understand how shocking this song was at the time.

ABDELFATAH: This is Johann Hari, author of "Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs."

HARI: To have an African American woman standing in front of a white audience, singing a song against white supremacy and its violence, was viscerally shocking at that moment.

ABDELFATAH: And it's around this time that Billie Holiday became the focus of government attention.

GRIFFIN: She'd been so harassed by narcotics agents.

ARABLOUEI: Over the years, Billie struggled with alcohol and drug addiction, and federal agents used that as an excuse to target her. One FBI memo quotes a source in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics saying, "Because of the importance of Holiday, it has been the policy of this bureau to discredit individuals of this caliber using narcotics." And there was one agent in particular who was out to get her; his name - Harry Anslinger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Come behind the scene at Washington, D.C., and meet the chief of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Mr. Harry J. Anslinger.

HARI: So Harry Anslinger was a government bureaucrat who took over the department of prohibition just as alcohol prohibition was ending. So he's got this government department that's part of the Treasury Department that's basically going to have nothing to do quite soon. And he wants to keep his department going, and he invented the modern war on drugs as the pretext for his department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY ANSLINGER: The Treasury Department intends to pursue a relentless warfare against the despicable, dope-peddling vulture who preys on the weakness of his fellow man.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARI: And to him, Billie Holiday was the incarnation of everything he hated. She is an African American woman standing up to white supremacy in a stunningly brave way. I mean, he was so racist that he was regarded as a crazy racist in the 1920s. His own senator for Pennsylvania said he should have to resign because he used the N-word so often in official police memos. And Billie Holiday had an addiction problem.

ABDELFATAH: One night, when Billie was slated to sing "Strange Fruit," she received a warning from Anslinger.

HARI: And the warning said, effectively, stop singing this song.

ABDELFATAH: She arrived at the club, got onstage and sang.

HARI: Billie Holiday's response, typical of her life, was effectively, screw you. I'm an American citizen. I'll sing what I damn well please. And at that point, Harry Anslinger resolves to destroy her.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: For years, Anslinger waged a campaign against Billie Holiday - sending agents to stalk her, throwing her in jail multiple times for drug possession and even preventing her from singing in clubs. And her career took a big hit.

ABDELFATAH: Despite all that, Billie Holiday refused to back down. In fact, "Strange Fruit" became her signature song.

GRIFFIN: It would be the last song of her set. She would demand silence. She wouldn't sing it if it wasn't silent. There'd be, like, this kind of pinpoint light on that beautiful face. She understood the import of the song and had become identified with it.

ABDELFATAH: In 1959, after years of battling addiction and harassment from agents...

HARI: She collapsed.

ABDELFATAH: She was suffering from liver disease.

ARABLOUEI: Billie was taken to the hospital.

HARI: But she said to her friend on the way in that Anslinger wasn't finished with her. She said, they're going to kill me in there. Don't let them. She wasn't wrong. Anslinger's men come into the hospital and arrest her on her hospital bed.

ABDELFATAH: In a matter of weeks, Billie died.

HARI: Billie Holiday had a friend called Yolande Bavan, who was a very young jazz singer. She called Yolande her daughter. And I said to Yolande, what would you say to Billie Holiday if you could speak to her now? And she told me how Billie Holiday, right at the end, thought that Anslinger had destroyed her, that no one would remember her. And she said, I'd say to her, Billie, this morning I went into Whole Foods in Columbus Circle, and they were playing your songs. Nobody forgot you, baby.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) ...Your eyes in stars above. It's just the thought of you, the very thought of you, my love.

CORNISH: That was Ramtin Arablouei and Rund Abdelfatah from Throughline for NPR's series Turning the Tables. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.