August 24, 2000
‘Strange Fruit’ and Stalinism
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
David Margolick, writer of books and articles on legal issues for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, has hit a raw nerve with his haunting book, "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights" (Running Press). The book is an account of the scalding impact of one song - a song about a lynching - on scores of Ameri-can activists, writers, musicians, artists and intellectuals.
When I interviewed him, Margolick told me of how he discovered "Strange Fruit": "I got into Billie Holiday 15 years ago and bought a record. When I saw the song's title, I thought it might be a sort of goofy long song with that playful title, kind of exotic and sexy. So I was utterly unprepared for what it actually was. I was amazed by two things: what it was about, and that I didn't know about it.
"I fancied myself a student of civil rights a little bit. I grew up reading about it, caring about it, and I never knew anything about this. So I sensed there was a void. I always had at the back of my mind to write something about it. It stayed and grew in my mind. I just knew there was a story."
"Strange Fruit" was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher, who used the nom de plume "Lewis Allan," combining the names of two of his children who died as infants.
Meeropol, a Communist who adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953 when they were executed as Soviet spies, first wrote the song as a poem, later setting it to music, when he saw a photograph of a horrendous lynching in a civil rights magazine. In 1939, Meeropol brought the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of Cafe Society, a legendary, integrated Greenwich Village club. Josephson gave the song to Billie Holiday, who made it indelibly her own.
Columbia refused to record the song, and Holiday took it to Milt Gabler, a producer who ran his record label out of his Commodore Record Shop in Manhattan. Gabler recorded it, and it has never gone away. In recent years, the song has been performed by Nina Simone, Tori Amos, Cassandra Wilson, Sting and UB40.
"Decades later," Margolick writes, "the experience of listening to, and watching, Billie Holiday perform 'Strange Fruit' - her eyes closed and head back, the familiar gardenia over her ear, her ruby lipstick magnifying her mocha complexion, her fingers snapping lightly, her hands holding the microphone stand as if it were a teacup - lingered in many memories."
As Pete Hamill has commented, "Strange Fruit" was not concocted by a songwriter with a fedora and a cigar sitting at a piano in the Brill building hoping for a hit. It put a searchlight on one of the ugliest facets of the American experience from 1889 to 1940, when, according to a study by the Tuskegee Institute, 3,833 people were lynched in the United States, 90 percent of them in the South.
Margolick's concentration on just one song's impact is an illustration of the power of the written word to change and transform our lives. I will never forget my own epiphanies of this kind - among them Kay Boyle reading James Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time" to my writing class at the New School for Social Research when it came out in The New Yorker.
I come to Margolick's book from a somewhat unique perspective. While writing my novel about the Rosenbergs, "Red Love," I researched the Communist Party's deeply cynical and exploitative role in the campaign supposedly to free them (in fact, the party, at Soviet direction, wanted nothing of the kind). I also drew upon my own personal adolescence experience, when Communist historian Herbert Aptheker, chronicler of slave rebellions, with his blazing red hair and equally blazing eyes, gave his last lectures at the crumbling Jefferson School of Social Science after Khrushchev's speech about Stalin's crimes in 1956.I loved to watch Aptheker; he was highly intelligent, and there was an inspired lunacy about him.
Sometimes he started "talking black." And sometimes he turned his back to the class for long periods of silent contemplation. We would wait patiently. Stalin's words of inspiration were on the blackboard, and in a shaking voice, Aptheker defended Soviet troops in Hungary and quoted a Brecht poem that Communists did not kill, they stopped killing. Yeah, right. I remember Aptheker once whispering to me that Tennessee Williams was "on our side," that Stanley Kowalski was a "splendid revolutionary," and that Williams' plays were magic (he was right about that).
Aptheker also told me of his own youthful days risking his life battling Jim Crow in the South. On that score I believed him then and I do today. American Communists could betray a good cause in a heartbeat (and Ralph Ellison writes brilliantly of their abrupt abandonment, literally overnight, of Harlem in "Invisible Man"), but like other ideologues, if instructed to do the right thing, they could do it with passionate hearts and sometimes even do it well.
Which brings me to the only difficulty I have with Margolick's elegant and compact book, as enduring an achievement as it is. Margolick uses the word "progressive" to denote everything good, and that includes Henry Wallace, his leadership of the Communist-dominated Progressive Party, and the Communist Party itself. By not critically examining the party's historic role, Margolick almost unwittingly lends himself to the currently fashionable revisionist view of the party as somehow, maybe in spite of itself, a force for democracy-that it really was indigenous, radical and progressive, and not a servile defender of a brutal, anti-Semitic and murderous Soviet status quo that embraced the Hitler-Stalin pact, barbarous repression and concentration camps.
Abel Meeropol's great and beautiful song helped pierce the American conscience and transform society, and that is almost entirely what David Margolick's book is about. But there is an inherent problem in embracing an ethos that somehow suggests, if only by historical omission, that democracies have "no enemies on the left." Stalin and Pol Pot, among many others, would hasten to disagree.