Thursday, May 10, 2012

James Cone on Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit"

I'm still slowly reading James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree. It's causing me, in a good, sad way, to self-examine and be further purged.

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

- Psalm 139:23-24

I am hearing things I have never heard before, listening to things I have never attended to before.

Cone is, among many other things, a Niebuhr scholar. He writes: "Unless we look at the 'facts of experience,' as Niebuhr's own realism demanded, what we say about the cross remains at the level of theological abstraction, like Karl Barth's Word of God, separated from the real crosses in our midst." (63)

Cone says one who made the connection real was the singer Billie Holiday, with her song "Strange Fruit." This is her "signature song about southern lynching. "When she sang that song, in the words of Elijah Wood, 'You feel as if you're at the foot of the tree'." When Brigitte McCulloch heard Josh White sing "Strange Fruit" she said: "On those southern trees, along with black men, hung the murdered Jews, hung all the victims of violence. And one survived to tell the story, to tear our hearts apart, to make us feel and remember." (64)

After reading this I listened to both Billie Holiday and Josh White sing "Strange Fruit." It reminds me of a Bruce Cockburn song as it takes a soft, moody, jazzy melody and sets words of hellish violence to it.

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Composed by Abel Meeropol (aka Lewis Allan)
Originally sung by: Billie Holiday