The most abstract idea conceivable is the sensuous in its elemental originality. But through which medium can it be presented? Only through music. Kierkegaard, Either/Or
At some point, that Kierkegaard quotation just seems plain wrong. Abel Meeropol first published Strange Fruit as an anti-lynching poem in The New Masses, and only later set it to music. There is a terrible beauty in the lyrics, in which he deploys a kind of warped sensuality to make his point. You don’t need to be Rene Girard to see the victims of lynchings as nothing less than reenactments of the Christian passion. What Girard helps us see (helps me see) is the way perpetrators of public lynchings directed mob violence in the guise of justice as a kind of let valve for societal tensions that can only be expelled through violence. In this reading, Meeropol connects the sacrificial impulse to the bounty of this “strange fruit” as a way of mocking an essentially pagan understanding of rebirth through said violence.
Billie Holliday was born 100 years ago on April 7th. Mark Steyn has written one of his ordinarily great article, in which he touches on Strange Fruit, Frank Sinatra’s devotion to her, and then Don’t Explain, a song she wrote with Arthur Herzog Jr, with whom she also collaborated on God Bless the Child. Here also are Cole Porter’s Night and Day, and then All of Me.
Happy Birthday, Lady Day …
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.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is 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.