UK–(ENEWSPF)–January 3, 2017
Nothing about this Inauguration is normal.
British singer Rebecca Ferguson said on Monday that she had been contacted by the Trump transition team and asked to perform at the Inauguration. Ferguson said that she would accept the team’s offer on one condition: that she be allowed to perform the song, “Strange Fruit,” immortalized by the great Billie Holiday in 1939, and in 1999 voted by TIME Magazine as “song of the century.” This is what Ferguson replied to Trump’s team:
I’ve been asked and this is my answer. If you allow me to sing “strange fruit” a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington.
Ferguson hears the song as a “reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer…hatred.” That is an interesting takeaway on this particular song. The song’s author, New York school teacher and political activist Abel Meeropol, upon first hearing Billie Holiday’s rendition, said that she had perfectly captured the “bitterness and the shocking quality I would hope the song would have.” Meeropol said that he wrote the song, “To jolt the audience out of complacency.” The author’s intention was not to remind people about love; he was stimulated to write by images of violence which shocked him. Here are the lyrics:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The song came into existence in a strange way. It was written by Meeropol in 1937. Meeropol came across a photograph of a lynching which captured his imagination and haunted his dreams. The photograph depicted two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, who were lynched in Marion, Indiana on August 6, 1930. Here is their story from the NPR website:
Eighty years ago, two young African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town center of Marion, Ind. The night before, on August 6, 1930, they had been arrested and charged with the armed robbery and murder of a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and the rape of his companion, Mary Ball.
That evening, local police were unable to stop a mob of thousands from breaking into the jail with sledgehammers and crowbars to pull the young men out of their cells and lynch them.
News of the lynching spread across the world. Local photographer Lawrence Beitler took what would become the most iconic photograph of lynching in America. The photograph shows two bodies hanging from a tree surrounded by a crowd of ordinary citizens, including women and children. Thousands of copies were made and sold. The photograph helped inspire the poem and song “Strange Fruit” written by Abel Meeropol — and performed around the world by Billie Holiday.
Make no mistake whatsoever but that “Strange Fruit” is a classic and regarded as such. This from The Guardian:
On the last day of 1999, Time magazine selected Strange Fruit as its choice for the best song of the passing century. The lyric is not as well as known as it should be, but it carries a passionate message for all time with its vibrant opposition to those who preach racial or religious hatred and intolerance in the US.
It is still a common assumption that Billie Holiday wrote the song; indeed her authorship was asserted in her 1956 ghostwritten autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, but the work was ghostwritten to an extent she would later acknowledge in fine laconic manner: “I ain’t never read that book.” The original source of the song is a poem called Strange Fruit, written in the 30s by the young Jewish poet and communist Abel Meeropol (who also wrote under the name of Lewis Allan, the first names given to his stillborn children). [Note: Meeropol and his wife would later adopt children, two boys, Michael and Robert Rosenberg, the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed in 1953 for being members of the communist party.]
The poem was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two young black men in Indiana. Copies of such photographs were very popular in the American south, and the images can be easily found on the web. One particularly disturbing example shows a mother and her child hanging from a bridge. In many cases, the hanged victims are surrounded by smiling white people waving at the camera. They sometimes have their children with them. The horrible truth is that in parts of the south in the early 20th century, the hanging of black people in public was a family occasion; lynching was part of the social fabric. “I wrote Strange Fruit,” said Meeropol, “because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate injustice.”
Josephson introduced the two and Meeropol sang the song for Holiday. A few days later, Meeropol returned to the club to hear Holiday sing his masterwork: “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere. This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holiday’s styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have. The audience gave a tremendous ovation.”
“Strange Fruit” is unquestionably a masterpiece. The only question here is whether a protest song based on an infamous lynching in the home state of the Vice-President Elect and performed at the Inauguration of a President Elect who is infamous in his own right for being a racist and using the “n” word is an idea which is sound, or which is in poor taste, to say the very least. Also please bear in mind that as I write this on Tuesday morning the NAACP is protesting the appointment of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to the post of Attorney General of the United States. Frankly, even contemplating performing this particular song at the Trump Inauguration is an insult to our black brothers and sisters and to the sensibilities of decent people everywhere.
The song, while undeniably a great work of art is shocking and was intended to be shocking. It is inappropriate for this venue and the Trump team should just ignore singer Ferguson’s request. She clearly is not in touch with the horror that this song was written to convey and perceives the song bizarrely. A song about lynchings in the south is not proper fare for the Presidential Inauguration of a known racist. At worst, Ferguson’s performance could constitute a mockery of Meeropol and Holiday, not to mention the victims of lynching and that would be unconscionable. Take a listen at the link below and you decide. Be forewarned, the images are from news footage but that doesn’t make them any the less difficult to see. This is our history; and unfortunately, our darkest hour.
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