On “Strange Fruit”

punksingerThe Punk Singer is a 2013 documentary about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna. The movie charts her brilliant, sad, radical, and sometimes violent trajectory across the musical landscape of the American Northwest in the ‘90s. Her limelight began in 1990 fronting the hard core 4-piece Bikini Kill. When criticised for not being able to play their instruments, the band’s response was simply ‘And?’ They  were part of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethic of politics, fashion, music and art that owed as much to the Punk vanguards of the ‘70s as it did to the Beats and Dada. Kathleen Hanna was Punk as Kathy Acker was Punk. Barbara Kruger. Her music was the Revolution Rock revived from its reggae roots by the Clash. With Kathleen Hanna, the protest song was taken to a new velocity, with new levels of impact and immediacy, but her musical and political genealogy ran deep, beyond Punk and the protest movement of the ‘60s, to Blues, and Jazz, and perhaps one of the most beautifully haunting protest songs of all time. Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

strangefruitsmall“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the Communist Party in New York. It was first sung by Holiday in 1939, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person inadvertently kicking off what history remembers as the Civil Rights Movement. The song is a simple, poetic, and deeply evocative protest against lynching in the South, where, amidst the fresh scent of magnolias in the breeze, black bodies swing from the poplar trees.

“Strange Fruit” was considered so hot at the time, so incendiary, Billie Holiday’s record company Columbia actually released her from contract, for one day, to record it. (It became her largest selling album.) When she first performed it at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, it closed her set. The manager had all the waiters stop serving, threw the entire room into darkness with a single spot illuminating Holiday’s face, and she sang the entire number with eyes closed, as if in prayer, lamenting:

The bulging eyes and the twisting mouth

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop…

(Meeropol, 1937)

Billie HolidayBilly Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very different scream to Kathleen Hanna’s bullet vocals trashing the hypocritical mores of sexuality and violence and celebrating the wild autonomy of feminism, but the punk girl’s anger grows from the same soil as the blood soaked poplar trees of the American South. In “Strange Fruit”, as Billy Holiday reaches the final word of the final phrase, her voice lifts. Like the opening of a window. Because within every hard core protest song is also a song about freedom and possibility.  As Kathleen Hanna points out in The Punk Singer, there’s no point singing about revolution unless you can dance to it.

Sean Macgillicuddy

Meeropol, Abel. (1937). As “Bitter Fruit”. The New York Teacher (ed. unknown). New York.

Happy Halloween, Australia

Halloween-picQ: I moved house a few months ago, and I’ve been enjoying my new neighbourhood. That is, until last week when I found a note in my letterbox asking me to put a couple of orange stickers (supplied with the note) on my gate so I can join in Halloween celebrations. I don’t even have kids! And isn’t Halloween an American thing? I don’t want to upset the locals and be the only one not participating. What should I do?

Spooked, VIC     

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A: Is there anything more un-Australian than our adoption of a not-even-American festival that’s been plucked from the depths of pre-medieval history to become a sugar-hyped free-for-all? Probably not. Yet, since none of us have any real clue what it is to be Australian (and without any re-worked traditions of our own), what else can we do but tag along? (It could be argued that has become our tradition.) But don’t worry because it’s hardly the same thing at all.

Cotton wool strung between ragged gum trees, badly carved fly-buzzed pumpkins perched on picket fence posts, unlit lanterns thrashing in a hot wind, sweaty little monsters swathed in metres of bed sheets — no, it doesn’t resemble anything close to Halloween. Here (thanks to a little thing called geography, and a not-so-little thing known as daylight savings) it’s celebrated under a scorching sun. No spookiness, no ghosts or goblins, no haunting shadows cast by flickering orange-tinged candlelight, no screams of delight or even fear. It’s nothing more than tiny gangs of over-excited and already over-fed children shepherded by over-indulgent parents, who trudge from orange-stickered house to orange-stickered house hoping to snag a few freebies. And where’s the harm in that?

Many years ago, my mother — a schoolteacher who, by the end of every day was utterly fed up with children of all ages and sizes (including her own) — opened the door to a trio of brave trick-or-treaters. After they’d made their demands, she yelled, ‘This is not America!’ and promptly slammed the door shut. I don’t know who was more shocked, and I was still too young to realise the erroneousness of her statement. Australia may not yet be America, but by God we’re trying our hardest.

So take heart and suck it up. Put those little orange stickers on your front gate – hell, paint the whole thing orange; grab a few pumpkins and relieve your frustrations with the biggest knife you have; buy kilos of chocolate (the cheap kind) so by the time the little darlings get home it’s melted to brown goo; pull a sheet off your bed and wrap yourself in it — not toga-like, of course; this isn’t a Roman orgy. And when you open your door to their sing-song voices and their cherubic smiles, smile back and thank all that is Australian that we haven’t (yet) adopted more outlandish traditions.

If there’s any consolation to be found, it’s this: you may never fully embrace or even enjoy Halloween, but you can be sure your role as the Grinch in upcoming neighbourhood Christmas festivities is already firmly established.

Jane Abbott   

 

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