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Best version of Strange Fruit


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GUEST,Bill Kennedy 27 Mar 02 - 04:53 PM
Ron Olesko 27 Mar 02 - 05:15 PM
masato sakurai 27 Mar 02 - 09:07 PM
Callie 28 Mar 02 - 12:03 AM
BH 29 Mar 02 - 07:03 PM
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Subject: Best version of Strange Fruit
From: GUEST,Bill Kennedy
Date: 27 Mar 02 - 04:53 PM

this was in a lyrics and chord request thread, but I'd like to know what others might think, it raises some questions

Billie Holiday did not sing the definitive version, that would be Josh White,in my opinion. Though Billie sang the first version recorded in 1939. The lyrics & music were written by Lewis Allen in 1937, whose real name was Abel Meeropol. At various times Billie Holiday took credit for both the music and the lyrics. Her arranger Sonny White sometimes gets credit for the music, and it is generally accepted from her 'Lady Sings the Blues' biography that the three of them worked on the music together, refining it for the first recording. Diana Ross' movie & soundtrack of the same name credits Lewis Allen with both words and music. So, one sees this title credited variously as words and music by Lewis Allen, Allen/Holiday, Lewis Allen/Eleonora Fagan/Sonny White, Allen/White, Holiday, Holiday/White, etc.

Abel Meerapol is also of interest for having with his wife adopted the orphaned children of Julius & Ethel Rosenberg after thier execution. For anyone that might not know Eleonora Fagan is Billie Holiday's name at birth.

BTW not too many years back, less than 10 I think, a jazz club opened in Cleveland, and two young white entrepreneur types, yuppies, we used to call them, opened a little juice bar inside it, for fresh juices, non-alcoholic, etc. What do you think they called it? Strange Fruit.

They said they like the song, thought it was a cool name, never knew it was about lynching or anything like that, obviously never having heard the song.

Which is one reason I like Josh White's version over Billie's. Her version loses the lyric in her styling sometimes, one can listen melodically but not emotionally, especially as she often seems so detached from everything she sings. Josh recorded it before 1944, and again in the fifties, I think 1954 on an album titled Strange Fruit. He was singing it in public fairly early, though many people tried to make him leave it to Billie for herself alone to sing. Glad he persisted, think it got wider exposure thanks to Josh, not everyone liked Billie's singing.

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Subject: RE: BS: Best version of Strange Fruit
From: Ron Olesko
Date: 27 Mar 02 - 05:15 PM

As much as I love Josh White, I have to give the nod to Billie Holiday's version. I have the opposite opinion of Bill Kennedy in regards to Holiday's performance - I think it is full of emotion and I don't get the feeling that she was detached at all. Her version is incredibly chilling and I can only imagine the effect it had on audiences at the time. While Josh White's is powerful, I don't think his performance was as subtle nor as moving - but it is still a powerful performance as well.

Realistically I do find it hard to compare. Both had their own unique style and it is really unfair to say one is better than the other.

It is also hard to call White's "definitive". More people have heard Holiday's version, so would you base definitive on mass reaction? I guess "definitive" depends on the audience you are sampling from.

One version I find very interesting is Karan Casey's. It was a unique choice for a singer that is know for her Irish roots. I think she did a superb job and gave it a different perspective.

Ron Olesko

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Subject: RE: BS: Best version of Strange Fruit
From: masato sakurai
Date: 27 Mar 02 - 09:07 PM

I've been familiar with Billie Holiday. gracenote search gives "308 matching CDs". Hard to tell which is the best.


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Subject: RE: BS: Best version of Strange Fruit
From: Callie
Date: 28 Mar 02 - 12:03 AM

When I hear Billie Holiday sing it I hear unspeakable sadness. I know her voice is an acquired taste. I'm happy to have acquired it.

If you wait a month or two I can also boast that my group Touchwood's version is a great version (although not as legendary as Billie's!!!). We sing it in 3 part harmony, unaccompanied. A tricky piece to sing in harmony because of all the diminished chords in it.

I arranged it sitting at a piano in North Carolina. I brought it back to Australia where Touchwood learnt it. Black deaths in custody is a big issue here in Australia. So although the lynchings have stopped, they haven't really, and the song is very significant to us and our audiences when we sing it.

As far as I understand, Abel Meeropol wrote it on his own. There was no "3 way thing" (a big myth).

Time magazine voted "Strange Fruit" the best song ever written. (What would the folks at Time know? In this case, I reckon they're pretty spot on!).


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Subject: RE: BS: Best version of Strange Fruit
From: BH
Date: 29 Mar 02 - 07:03 PM

It might be of interest to check the radio page of Mudcat. There is archived there an interview I did with David Margolich who wrote the book "Strange Fruit". I think you will find his insights into the song quite interesting. Also his comments of Holiday vis a vis White, as wel as his comments on the authorship (you are right---it was not a triumvirate). It was Abel Meerapol alone.

He also relates a wonderful story of Holiday's confrontation with White about the song---and how she did not really get it at first(the song)---then took it as her own and created her legend of being involved with witnessing a lynching--never happened.

Better yet---read the book---it is truly interesting and well written by this contributor to Vanity Fair, the New York Times and other publications.

You might also check out Ron Olesko's interviews with Elijah Wald (biographer of Josh White) on the Radio archives of this website.

Bill Hahn

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