In a recent issue of Commentary, music critic Terry Teachout recounts in brief the story of the great jazz singer Billie Holiday. Jazz aficionados know some of the basics: she grew up poor, became a prostitute at a very young age, pulled herself out of poverty to become a star – but destroyed herself with drugs, alcohol, and a series of compulsively self-destructive relationships, being “irresistibly drawn,” as Teachout puts it, “to flashy, violent men who, like the pimps she had known in her childhood, lived off her earnings.”
Yet through it all she remained a gifted musical artist, able (to quote Teachout again) to “make even the most trivial Tin Pan Alley ditties seem meaningful” and to bring first-class songs “to vivid life without falling victim to the temptation to over-dramatize them.” Teachout cites Holiday’s prewar recordings of such tunes as “I Wished on the Moon” and “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” as archetypal of her work at its best. Other examples: “Easy Living” and “I’m Gonna Lock My Heart (and Throw away the Key).”
But in 1939, Holiday’s career began to take a major turn – one that, as Teachout tells it, had a surprising political element. During a long-term association with a New York club called Café Society, Holiday “changed her style deliberately and dramatically,” introducing new songs into her repertoire. Among them was “Strange Fruit,” which Teachout describes as “a minor-key setting of a poem about a lynching” that is performed “at a paralytically slow tempo” and “full of melodramatic couplets whose sincerity cannot disguise their staginess.” In any event, it became a hit (and a classic) – and pushed her over the line from successful band singer to full-fledged singing star.
Holiday’s recording of “Strange Fruit” is powerful – as is virtually everything else she recorded. A social statement for which the word “impassioned” is far too weak, the song serves up a ghoulish image of a lynched corpse and bitterly condemns what the lyric refers to, with acid sarcasm, as “the gallant South.” It’s interesting and instructive to learn from Teachout that the lyrics were by Abel Meeropol, a fervent Communist who (small world) adopted the sons of the Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the spies’ 1953 execution.
Needless to say, lynching was every bit as abominable a practice as “Strange Fruit” suggests. But for Stalinists like Meeropol, writing songs about such subjects for American consumption was a consummately cynical exercise; such productions were, quite simply, Cold War weapons, the kind that America was not in a position to counter with similar weapons of its own, given the hermetic nature of Soviet culture. And what effective weapons songs like Meeropol’s were – promoting the diabolical ideology of Stalinism by pummeling the consumers of American popular culture with reminders of the very worst aspects of American history and thus rendering them more vulnerable to the idea that the enemy’s way just might be better.
Holiday, however addled by drugs and booze and beatings, wasn’t unaware of this aspect of her work. She was a mess, but she wasn’t stupid. “Strange Fruit” changed her style. As the music critic John Hammond has observed, her later work remained “marvelously musical” but also became “mannered” and “self-conscious.” He called Meeropol’s song “the beginning of the end” for Holiday as an artist, because it made her “the darling of the left-wing intellectuals,” which in turn caused her to start “taking herself very seriously and thinking of herself as very important.”
Teachout puts it this way: at Café Society, Holiday “reinvented herself as a politically conscious torch singer” and thus became “a magnet for leftists, many of them of the hardest possible kind.” These were people who were “more interested in her utility as a political symbol than in her artistry.”
Billie Holiday, political symbol? You bet. Just poke around online. The World Socialist Web Site devotes a page to the story of “Strange Fruit.” Earlier this year, in People’s World (which describes itself as “the direct descendant of the Daily Worker”), Robert Meeropol, the Rosenbergs’ younger son, sought out parallels between Holiday and his mother, the traitor, paying tribute to both of them and concluding as follows: “In 2015, the centennial year of both of their births, we remember Billie Holiday for singing about lynching, and we remember Ethel Rosenberg for being legally lynched.”
The artistic results of Billie Holiday’s conversion from purely apolitical songstress to tool of left-wing propagandists were not pretty. “From 1939 on,” Teachout writes, “she resorted with fast-growing frequency to a lugubrious self-dramatization and exaggeration”; while “still capable of singing with moving expressivity,” she exchanged “unselfconscious simplicity” for “the inflated pseudo-profundity of ‘Strange Fruit.’” Was she a useful stooge? Hard to say. But she was surrounded by them, used by them, influenced by them, and paraded by them as a victim of a society that, in point of fact, was, for all its egregious faults, incomparably superior to the murderous totalitarian dictatorship for which they labored incessantly and lied without shame.