“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” Sheds Light on a Little-Known Piece of Black History

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 28, 2021

Tonight, singer Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her portrayal of jazz singer Billie Holiday in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”. The Hulu film, directed by Lee Daniels, dramatizes how Holiday was hounded by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for her landmark song “Strange Fruit”.

The song, based on a poem by writer Abel Meeropol, depicts the widespread practice of lynching; the hanging of Black people was a common practice in the American South between the 1860s and 1960s. It was an unflinching description of the brutality that Black people often experienced: “The poem was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two young black men in Indiana,” writes Guardian journalist Edwin Moore. “Copies of such photographs were very popular in the American South, and the images can be easily found on the web […] In many cases, the hanged victims are surrounded by smiling white people waving at the camera. They sometimes have their children with them. The horrible truth is that in parts of the South in the early 20th century, the hanging of black people in public was a family occasion; lynching was part of the social fabric.” It was that practice outlined in the lyrics of the song:

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black body swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Meeropol wrote the poem in 1937, around the same time that a Senate bill meant to end lynching in the U.S. failed to pass. Meeropol brought the poem to Cafe Society, a club in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It had already been set to music, but it was Holiday’s version that would linger in the minds of listeners. Meeropol called her version “a startling, most dramatic, and effective interpretation.” Daniels depicts Day singing “Strange Fruit” in close-up, with lines about “a 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.”

The song became controversial; many club owners later refused to let her perform the song. But Holiday refused to back down. “‘Fruit’ goes a long way in telling how they mistreat Negroes down South,” she once said. The film depicts the tension between her husband James Monroe, manager Joe Glazer, and Holiday over the song. In one scene, Glazer decides to remove the song from Holiday’s setlist. “I’ve scratched it,” he tells her bluntly. Holiday protests that she should be allowed to sing the song: “It’s important to me.” Besides, “People pay good money to hear me sing it.” (Indeed, her 1939 recording of the song sold over a million copies, becoming one of her best-known songs.)

Glazer retorts that it’s written by Abel Meeropol, “a commie”. “I don’t care,” Holiday responds. She accuses both Glazer and Monroe of being friends with Harry Anslinger (the first head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics). Anslinger decides to prosecute Holiday for the song. In a closed-door meeting with lawmakers, he insists that “this Holiday woman’s got to be stopped. She keeps singing this ‘Strange Fruit’ song, and it’s causing a lot of people to think the wrong things.”

“Why is this so important to you, Harry?” asks one man. (Anslinger might’ve responded that after the failure of Prohibition, his department was soon becoming obsolete. Instead, he uses Holiday’s drug problem (and racism) as justification: “Drugs and niggers are a contamination to our great American civilization.”

It is that basis on which the federal government begins harassing Holiday. On May 16, 1947, Holiday was arrested for possession of narcotics in her New York apartment. On May 27 she was in court. “It was called ‘The United States of America versus Billie Holiday’. And that’s just the way it felt,” she recalled. She was sentenced to 366 days in jail — one year and one day. Forced to go cold turkey in jail, she eventually lost her cabaret card, which forced her to perform in concert venues and large halls. It was one more indignity in Holiday’s existence, which was marked by sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a heroin addiction that ruined her voice and her life. She was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed shortly before her death from cirrhosis in 1959, aged just 44.

Tonight, Andra Day won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama for her uncanny portrayal of Holiday. The last Black woman to win in this category was Whoopi Goldberg in 1986. (She won for her wrenching performance as Celie in “The Color Purple”.)

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