It’s 1956 and Billie Holiday, also called “Lady Day”, sings in clubs where she can’t even use the fucking bathroom. Instead, most of the time, she squats on the side of the road while her white backing band pampers their wee little bottoms in the beauty of a private bathroom stall. To listen to Holiday sing is to open up those dusty covers on a history we would often rather ignore. She’s forty-one at the time of this recording. And her voice is far from perfect. It has gathered that extra rasp, rustle, and gruff from all the years of dope and booze. In three years’ time she’ll be diagnosed with cirrhosis. And a month before her death and on the same hospital bed, she’ll be arrested for heroin possession. She’s maintaining two very heavy addictions during the time of this recording. I bet you anything she’s itchy as all fuck. Straight up? Anyone would have a hard time kicking that shit when memories of working in a Baltimore brothel, at 16, keep popping up. Struggle? Shit, Lady Day’s got that shit in spades. She got served a bad hand full of sexual abuse, physical abuse, institutionalization, addiction, prison sentences, and, oh ya, being a black woman before the civil rights movement.
Needless to say, this album title isn’t fucking around. This lady is truly, honestly, and at times unnervingly singing the blues. If you listen to Holiday and don’t hear the blues, you’re fucking colour-blind. She had a bit of fame when she was alive, sold some records, made a couple headlines. Hell, she even dated Orson Welles during his filming of Citizen Kane. But all her longer relationships turned out to be with abusive assholes. So, when she sings “I’m in love with a no good man” she knows what she’s fucking talking about. This lady knows pain intimately. It’s been her longest and most dependable bedfellow. And yet, despite all this complete and utter bullshit, not only can she sing on a stage, she sings straight from her fucking soul.
Each time she sang “Strange Fruit” she made the venue dim the lights and project a single spotlight on her face. When the song finished, the spotlight would go out. And when the houselights came back on, Billie would be gone. Poof. That’s all folks. This song is often alluded to and often ignored. A mere glance at the words show how scathing these words are to the world around her.
“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.”
Picture that for a moment. Standing at 5’ 5″, Lady Day takes the stage, thinks about her own father’s death, then sings out to a packed white crowd about lynching. This album is beyond inspiring. I prefer this version with the gruff in her voice. I like to hear the years in that distinct, yet elegant, rattle. I find it allows the truth of her tale, all 62 years later, to settle a bit deeper within me. And, most of the time, when this truth hits me it’s both stunningly beautiful and fucking terrifying.
Poof. That’s all folks.