Strange Fruit: the strange story of the song

Cynthia Hopkins of Gloria Deluxe

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., January 31, 2003) – Not just any song can stand up to the scrutiny of an hour-long documentary film, but “Strange Fruit” is no ordinary song, as is made clear by the documentary of the same name being shown in the Cinema Lounge series at Mass MoCA in North Adams next Thursday, Feb. 6, at 8.

The story of “Strange Fruit,” the song that became a civil rights anthem and cause celebre in the hands of Billie Holiday, is a quintessentially American story: a Jewish schoolteacher in the Bronx is disturbed by images of lynchings of blacks in the South, publishes a poem about it in a union newsletter, and later sets it to music for a union cabaret.

Meanwhile, in downtown Manhattan, Billie Holiday is entertaining a mixed-race audience at the Café Society, an avant-garde cabaret combining influences from Berlin to Harlem. Holiday agrees to add the song to her act, and eventually she records it – although not for her main outlet, Columbia Records, but for a small label independently owned by a Jewish hi-fi equipment retailer.

The gripping documentary, directed by Joel Katz, is as much a social history as a music documentary, with historians commenting on the twisted saga of lynchings as well as the background canvas of radical politics and McCarthyism against which much of the story of “Strange Fruit” took place.

The film includes rare footage of Billie Holiday singing the song for a BBC television broadcast just months before her death, as well as recent footage of Cassandra Wilson singing her modern version of the song. Other performers heard from include Don Byron, Pete Seeger, Abbey Lincoln and Josh White. Also interviewed are the two adopted sons of the songwriter, Abe Meeropol, who adopted the children of executed “atom bomb spies” Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

Also featured on the same program is “The Internationale,” a documentary about the anthem of the European working class, narrated by Pete Seeger and featuring an updated version of the song by Billy Bragg.

Jonathan Pointer

When Jonathan Pointer sings “I don’t hate myself” in the song of that title from his terrific, darkly mordant album, “Love Songs from the Outskirts of Bliss,” you almost believe him. He’s got one of the most convincing voices you’ll ever hear – a whispery rasp that’s one part Leonard Cohen and one part Tom Waits, tailor-made for singing Pointer’s cabaret-tinged, acoustic rock songs about agony and angst.

Originally from Missouri and now living in New York, Pointer claims to have worked as a state mental hospital attendant, a dog catcher, a pizza delivery boy, a door-to-door meat seller and as house manager at Carnegie Hall. Again, it’s all believable once you hear him sing in a voice that couldn’t possibly tell a lie.

Pointer warms up the crowd tonight at 8:30 at Club Helsinki for Gloria Deluxe, which will be premiering songs off its new album, “Alas Alack,” featuring a baker’s dozen new songs from the pen of frontwoman Cynthia Hopkins. A regular presence on the Berkshire scene, Hopkins has performed solo or with her band at Mass MoCA, where Gloria Deluxe opened for Patti Smith in its first appearance outside of New York and where Hopkins composed a piece for Tim Hawkinson’s site-specific “Uberorgan,” and at Jacob’s Pillow, where Hopkins performed last summer in Big Dance Theater’s “Shunkin.”

On Sunday night, Helsinki presents a triple-bill of rock acts, featuring Richmond-based quintet Fighting Gravity, which has toured Aerosmith, the Dave Matthews Band and Vertical Horizon. Also on the bill are Kyle Davis, also from Richmond, a soulful folk-rock singer-songwriter who has toured with Don Dixon and Peter Holsapple, and a group called Junior.

Christopher Williams

Based in Boston, home to the likes of Tom Rush and Ellis Paul, singer-songwriter Christopher Williams has a lot to live up to. But the New York-born, Bucknell religious studies graduate and former Seattle preschool teacher, who performs tomorrow night at 8 at the Railway Café in North Adams, doesn’t have much to apologize for. He’s already shared stages with the likes of Rush and Paul, as well as Bruce Hornsby, Peter Himmelman, Patty Larkin, Greg Brown and Livingston Taylor.

Williams recently released his fourth album, “Side Streets,” recorded live at Cambridge’s famed Club Passim. The album captures Williams in his element, with his yearning vocals – shades of Ellis Paul and Richard Shindell there – and his highly rhythmic approach – in addition to playing guitar, Williams is a percussionist who accompanies himself on djembe on some songs.

Radio Rogovoy

Another in our series of periodic tallies of the most-played recordings -- most new, some old – on our imaginary radio station:

1. Pretenders,
“Loose Screw” (Artemis)

2. Patty Larkin,
“Red=Luck” (Vanguard)

3. Donald Fagen,

4. Hazeldine,
“Double Back” (Okra-Tone)

5. The Wallflowers,
“Red Letter Days” (Interscope)

6. Maria Tanase,
“Ciuleandra” (Oriente Rien)

7. David Bowie,
“Heathen” (ISO/Columbia)

8. Pharaoh’s Daughter,
“Exile” (Knitting Factory)

9. Sofia,
“Bukovina Songs” (Oriente Rien)

10. Pink Floyd,
“Is There Anybody Out There?: The Wall Live 1980-81” (Columbia)

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 31, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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