SITTING in a coffee shop in the NSW Southern Highlands the other day, I became aware that the music playing was Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” I looked around but no one else seemed bothered. It’s possible, I suppose, that my fellow coffee drinkers simply hadn’t noticed the song or didn’t recognise it. And, perhaps fortunately, the volume was so low that the words were indistinguishable. Certainly I could see no patrons put off their cappuccinos by descriptions of “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth” of recently lynched African Americans. As Billie sang on in the background, “the sudden smell of burning flesh” never obscured the delightful aroma of roasting beans.
Of course, it’s a commonplace that music once considered dangerous – either for its associations or for the words it carries or, indeed, because of the sound of the music itself – ends up as someone’s idea of nostalgia. If it isn’t forgotten, music that was once shocking and rebarbative – Beethoven’s ninth symphony, The Rite of Spring, Jimi Hendrix, the Sex Pistols – tends to become part of the canon or a cliché. Sometimes it takes an act of will to remind ourselves of the music’s original power. Still, “Strange Fruit” in a cafe? “Strange Fruit” over the fruit tarts?
In fact, as Dorian Lynskey points out in his recent history of the protest song, 33 Revolutions Per Minute, Holiday’s song is no stranger to the hospitality industry. She introduced “Strange Fruit” in 1939 at a New York establishment called Café Society. As it happened, this proprietor understood the song’s significance – in 1939, it must have been hard to miss – so before Holiday sang it at the very end of her set that night, the waiters were instructed to cease serving and retreat to the back wall, the house lights were suddenly extinguished and the singer’s face was illuminated by a bare, white spot that was snapped out at the song’s conclusion. From then on, she always did it the same way, and it always finished her set. What could follow it?
Billie Holiday wrote or co-wrote several of her best-known songs, “God Bless the Child” and “Fine and Mellow” among them, but while she might be most closely associated with “Strange Fruit,” it was not her work. The words – at first it was a poem – were written by one Abel Meeropol, a Bronx schoolteacher and Communist Party member, whose songs appeared under the somewhat less Semitic nom de plume of Lewis Allan. Meeropol did not compose the tune, but rather cobbled it together and not terribly well. It took an arrangement by the band leader at Café Society before Holiday was interested. And, to be honest, the tune remains pretty undistinguished. Were it not for the shocking bluntness of the words it is doubtful anyone would recall the song (just try humming it all the way through) and, as Lynskey records, the words also underwent transformation, the rather obvious “Bitter Fruit” becoming the more telling and memorable “Strange Fruit.”
Lynskey suggests that “Strange Fruit” was “the popular protest song’s Ground Zero,” pointing out that while such songs might have existed before it, they were best suited to chanting demonstrators and picket-line singalongs. This is debatable, though it is true that “Strange Fruit” will never be a suitable vehicle for community singing – the oddly disjunct melodic line, more recitative than aria, and the necessarily slow tempo see to that. But if we adopt the iTunes definition of “song,” which embraces everything from a movement in a piano concerto to a twenty-minute side on a Miles Davis album, we discover there have been plenty of similar moments of protest in musical history.
Beethoven will do as an example. On 20 November 1805 in Vienna, the first performance of his opera Leonore was something of a disaster. Seven days before, Napoleon’s troops had entered the city and many of Beethoven’s potential audience had fled. Others doubtless considered it prudent to stay indoors. Had they gone along to the Theater an der Wien that night, they would have heard and seen plenty that might qualify as a “protest song,” for Leonore (renamed Fidelio on its reappearance nine years later) is a dramatic hymn to freedom of speech. The scene at the end of the first act, when political prisoners emerge from their dungeons, singing of their joy at breathing fresh air, is as powerful as any protest song I know, and it must have spoken very directly to the few brave souls who attended that particular opening night.
Most opera-goers have probably forgotten the circumstances under which Leonore/Fidelio had its premiere. As much as anything, this is testimony to the power of the work itself – like all great art, it transcends place and time. But of course when we think of the term “protest song” we think ineluctably of the 1960s, the politically committed Odetta and Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Joan Baez, rubbing shoulders with the more ambivalent Bob Dylan (who had the songwriting talent of all of them and more). As the movements for civil rights and, later, against the Vietnam war grew, they did so in step with an outpouring of song. Some of these were written on the fly, others had rather longer evolutions. Lynskey tells us that the tune of “We Shall Overcome” dates from eighteenth-century Europe (a little more information would have been nice) and seems to have reached the United States as a hymn. It was sung at a strike in 1945 and quickly became a union song. Pete Seeger heard it a few years later, added a couple of verses and changed “will” to “shall,” which is easier to sing and sounds stronger. In 1959, it was being sung during a police raid on the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee when someone shouted at the police, “We are not afraid,” and instantly that line was incorporated.
The trouble with a lot of 1960s protest songs was that they became chic. Musically, there’s not a big difference between Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and “Let’s Get It On.” Even Van Morrison, who hadn’t a political bone in his body, incorporated the line “You can’t stop us on the road to freedom” into what was otherwise a love song, “Tupelo Honey,” in 1971. Who knows what he meant by it? The British Isles, which had their share of protest singers, including the Dylan-esque Donovan, showed that protest songs need not align themselves with progressive politics. The Kinks’ song “The Village Green Preservation Society” is undeniably a protest song, but its sentiments are conservative, while the Beatles’ first attempt at protest was George Harrison’s “Taxman,” a song that might today be sung at rallies of the Tea Party.
If pop commercialism to some extent watered down the protest songs of the 1960s, something very different was happening in the more rarefied circles of avant-garde and electronic music. While the German composer Hans Werner Henze was peppering his music of the late sixties with slogans by the student activist Rudi Dutschke, Luigi Nono believed that the very fabric of his music had to be revolutionary: tonal music was the capitalist running dog of the concert hall. The American composer, Martin Bresnick, recently recalled a confrontation with Nono at a new music festival in 1970 in (of all places) Soviet-occupied Prague, when the Italian composer took the young Bresnick to task for producing music that would be “aesthetically and historically irrelevant.”
Of course, the trouble with pushing this line was that almost no one cared. Audiences for avant-garde music, while they might have approved of the aesthetic and liked the sounds, could not be expected automatically to fall in with the politics, while outside on the barricades no one much was whistling Nono. The broader issue – the issue, really, with all political art – was that a good cause does not give you good art: for that, you need talent. And good art, no matter how politically motivated, will not speak to the people it wishes to address, unless it first appeals to them as art.
This was as true at the Darmstadt summer courses for new music as it was at Haight-Ashbury, and it is borne out by two especially telling lines in Lynskey’s book. One is at the start of the chapter on “Free Nelson Mandela” by the Special AKA, one of the most ubiquitous songs of the early 1980s, with its well-argued list-style verses, its singalong chorus (consisting only of the song’s title, which is the song’s message) and its catchy trumpet lick. It is, of course, the trumpet that makes the song so infectious, and so it is startling to discover that in 1983, by which time the composer Jerry Dammers had already come up with both the tune and the trumpet riff, he had not yet even heard of Nelson Mandela.
The other line is quoted by Lynskey at the front of his book. It belongs to Phil Ochs, whose early death assured him of a special place in the protest-song pantheon and who always had a knack for getting to the heart of the matter.
“As bad as it may sound,” Ochs admitted, “I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation, than a bad song on the side of integration.” •