It’s 1939 in a New York City nightclub, and rising star Billie Holiday takes to the stage. But after a crowd-pleasing set, the lights go down and the mood changes. Somberly lit by a single spotlight, Holiday sings a song that will captivate the nation – and set her on a tragic path to an untimely death.
Before becoming the main attraction at New York’s Cafe Society, Holiday had already led an eventful life. Born in the Pennsylvania city of Philadelphia in April 1915, she had spent her childhood in Baltimore, Maryland, where her mother Sadie struggled to provide her daughter with a stable home life.
At just ten years old, Holiday claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a neighbor, an incident that resulted in her being taken from her mother and placed in a reform school. Eventually, Sadie regained custody, and the pair moved together to New York. There, after spending some time in jail for solicitation, Holiday finally began her singing career.
Soon, Holiday’s voice and talent captured the attention of producer John Hammond, who launched the young woman into the spotlight. And by the time that Barney Josephson opened Cafe Society in 1938 – the first nightclub in the United States not to practice segregation – Holiday stepped up to the role of resident singer with grace.
That year, Robert Gordon, the director of Holiday’s Cafe Society show, attended a performance at the city’s Madison Square Garden. There, he watched African-American singer Laura Duncan deliver a rendition of “Strange Fruit” – a short, powerful tune that would come to be considered by many as the first true protest song.
Written in 1937, “Strange Fruit” was the brainchild of the American poet Abel Meeropol, who was inspired to pen the lyrics after seeing a photograph of a lynching that had taken place in Indiana. A dark, harrowing tale, it painted a picture of the violent racism that was still commonplace across much of the United States.
Through Gordon, Holiday was introduced to Meeropol’s song, and a legend was born. With her inimitable voice, she transformed the sorrowful lyrics into something that inspired visceral reactions wherever it was performed. In fact, when she debuted the track at a Harlem party, the audience responded with shocked silence – followed by rapturous cheers.
“She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywhere,” Meeropol is reported to have said after Holiday performed the song at Cafe Society for the first time. “This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it.” However, the subject matter was too controversial for the singer’s label Columbia, which refused to record the track.
Instead, Holiday turned to the left-wing Commodore Records, and in 1939 “Strange Fruit” was released. Instantly, it became a hit, adopted by those campaigning for a law against lynchings. And even though it was not the first song to become inextricably linked with political protest, it represented an entirely different approach.
Previously, protest songs had been the preserve of union workers and political activists – accessible anthems designed to inspire solidarity among the masses. But with “Strange Fruit,” Holiday transformed the genre, taking her message into the realm of entertainment and making it art.
Unsurprisingly, people were shocked. While some cheered Holiday’s performance enthusiastically, others walked out in silent protest. And when she left Cafe Society to take her hit song across the United States, the controversy followed her everywhere that she went. In some places, she was even asked to omit the song from her set – although she never caved to the demands.
But despite Holiday’s success, a dark shadow loomed over her promising career. Having suffered a string of abusive relationships, the singer found herself increasingly drawn to drugs and alcohol. Sadly, it was these weaknesses that made her a target for Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
Since 1930, Anslinger had been actively campaigning against marijuana – and the jazz musicians that he believed used and popularized the drug. Deeply racist, he found their music strange and threatening, filled with the echoes of a primitive past. “It sounded like the jungles in the dead of the night,” he is reported to have written.
Although he tried to take on the entire jazz community at first, Anslinger’s efforts were thwarted at every turn by the solidarity of the movement. Eventually, he decided to focus his attention on one woman – the rumored drug addict Billie Holiday, who refused to stop singing about racism. To that end, he tasked Jimmy Fletcher, an African-American agent, with spying on her.
Eventually, Fletcher and Holiday grew close. However, the agent’s affections could not put a stop to Anslinger’s vendetta. And when Holiday ended things with her abusive husband Louis McKay, he helped Anslinger to bust her for drugs. At her trial, she begged for help – but was sentenced to a year in prison instead.
In 1948 Holiday was released from jail, but her career would suffer a massive blow. Banned from performing at any venue that sold alcohol, her beloved jazz clubs were suddenly off limits. However, Holiday continued to delight audiences with songs such as “Strange Fruit,” selling out shows at New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Sadly, Anslinger was far from done with Holiday. And now, George White – a fellow racist and the commissioner’s top agent – was on the case. Eventually, he tracked the singer to a hotel, where she informed him that she was no longer using drugs. But despite her insistence, White claimed to have found a stash of heroin in her room.
Awaiting trial, Holiday insisted that White had planted the drugs. And luckily, the jury ruled in her favor. But by then, the pressure of Anslinger’s constant persecution had begun to take its toll on both her voice and her health. However, throughout all of her struggles, she still performed “Strange Fruit” – the very song that had brought her so much unwanted attention.
In May 1959 Holiday was brought to New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, where she was treated for heart and liver disease. But even then, Anslinger would not leave her alone, sending men who once more accused her of using drugs. Eventually, her methadone treatment was withdrawn and she passed away, a prisoner in her own hospital bed.
Anslinger would face no real repercussions for his treatment of Holiday, retaining his post until retiring in his 70s. But despite his best efforts, Holiday is still remembered as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time. “This young lady was gifted by her creator with tremendous talent,” Reverend Eugene Callender, a Harlem pastor, is reported to have said in her eulogy. “She should have lived to be at least 80 years old.”