The Power of a Voice | “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday.


Paige Drob, Training Director

This week’s Throwback Thursday Jam of the Day is an ode to the most powerful song I have ever heard, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” You may have heard snippets before as samples in songs like Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves,” but hearing it in this form does not compare to seeing Holiday’s face as she performs it live.

The haunting lyrics address the issue of lynching in the south, and were originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, a teacher who was haunted by a photo of two Black men being lynched in 1930. Holiday came across the poem and it immediately reminded her of her father and the demons of Jim Crow’s South. 

Holiday mentioned she did not enjoy singing the highly emotional song, but knew she had to. Holiday had to sing “Strange Fruit” because after years and years, Black people were still killed by lynching and by the systemic racism built into American society.

The federal government feared Billie Holiday’s power, they feared that people would learn the truth from her song. Federal agents would do anything to keep her off the stage. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, used numerous tactics to try to incriminate Holiday, including sending an undercover agent who had purposefully befriended her, to raid the performer’s hotel room, leading to a yearlong prison sentence for Holiday. 

After she was released they refused to reissue her performance license. She kept singing. The federal government became more afraid.

In 1959, almost 30 years after “Strange Fruit” was originally put to paper, Holiday, aged 44, was hospitalized for liver cirrhosis. Her hospital room was raided and federal government agents arrested her, handcuffing Holiday to her bed and forbid doctors from treating her. Days later, she died just like her father did decades earlier when he was refused treatment at a Southern hospital.

Holiday fought injustice through music just like so many had before her, and so many have continued after. “Strange Fruit” is a perfect example of the power of art, and how dangerous art can be for bigots.