41. Billie Holiday – ‘Strange Fruit’ (1939)

“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”

Written by Abel Meeropol

Taken from the album Gold

‘Strange Fruit’ is probably the most historically significant song on this list, and yes that includes all the Spice Girls songs. Written in 1936 as a poem and eventually gaining ground as a protest song around New York, it has been covered by hundreds of artists over the years, but none more famously than Billie Holiday in 1939. It would become her crowning achievement, her greatest work, her signature song. The strange fruit in the title refers to the lynching of African Americans, a common practice back when the lyrics were written. Not only is the subject matter important, the song has musical merit too, it’s lyrical style perfectly conveying that haunted, ghostly feel.

“Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia, clean and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh”

I have three versions of ‘Strange Fruit’, by Tori Amos, Nina Simone and then Billie’s reading. While Tori and Nina – particularly Nina – give amazing vocal performances, they don’t come close to the way Billie sings it. She sings, like she did on most songs, as if the world is on her shoulders. The piano (by Sonny White) in the background mixed with the static of early recording tools is some of the most atmospheric, most effective musical backing I’ve ever heard – and it’s so simple. Three verses, one voice, a piano, and one very important message, a message that would shift from protest to memorial as the times changed, but one that never lost it’s power.

“Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”

Audio:

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