The Story Of...Strange Fruit
On 20 April 1939, Billie Holiday went into a studio with an eight-piece band to record Strange Fruit. This jarring song about the horrors of lynching became her biggest hit: she would end her sets with it, the lights dimmed to near darkness except for a single spotlight just on her; the audience hushed to silence as the band would strike up the first notes.
At first, she didn't want to record it as it was too downbeat for her, too weird. After its success, she tried to take credit for writing it. Holiday was often economical with the truth, but one fact is undisputable: the way she sang it transformed a protest song by a leftist writer named Abel Meerapol into a work of art, an expression of anguished longing and pain that even now, 81 years after its first recording, remains a gut punch of the horrors of racial violence.
I made this radio piece six years ago, for its 75th anniversary.