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