Friday, February 18, 2011
This article about Billie Holiday's song Strange Fruit appeared in the Guardian this week. And I have a story about Strange Fruit that I'd like to tell.
I studied English at university. I finished in August 2006 when I handed in my MA thesis. In my first year (which was almost ten years ago), we had a lecture on slave narratives.
I went to the largest university in Ireland, and English was a popular subject, so we almost filled the largest 500-seater lecture theatre. On this particular day, I was sitting with a friend I'm still in touch with, scribbling on my refill pad (I'm a chronic doodler) and presumably talking before the lecture started. I don't remember what we talked about, but I remember everything else.
Our lecturer was a slight woman with a Northern Irish accent and a nice smile. She was spending longer than usual faffing about the front of the theatre, so there was still a low hum of conversation.
Then she turned to face us, and the music started. Strange Fruit opens with a long instrumental section, and the recording sounded faded and crackly. It took a while for the conversations to stop - the opening is difficult to hear and didn't immediately overpower the sound of 400-odd people talking. But slowly it did. We sat listening to the haunting trumpet music, wondering what this was about.
Then Billie Holiday's voice: 'Southern trees. . . . bear a strange fruit. . . . Blood on the leaves. . . . and blood at the root.' And the shiver that ran through me.
I could feel the tension in the bodies around me. There was no sound but her voice. Everyone had frozen.
'Black bodies swinging. . . . in the Southern breeze. . . strange fruit hanging. . . . from the poplar trees.'
There were parts of the song where I couldn't hear the lyrics properly, and I wrote down the song title so I could rush to Google them as soon as class was over.
When the song died, the whole theatre was silent.
Our lecturer began to speak. I don't remember what she said. I don't remember very much about the slave narratives at all. I do remember a highly intelligent friend in the bar saying that we studied them because of political correctness and not because of literary excellence, and I remember not knowing enough about them to agree or disagree with him. I still don't.
But that was a powerful moment, when Lady Day's voice filled a lecture theatre in a country she never saw, 42 years after she died.