Essay, Research Paper: Billie Holiday


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In the early twentieth century, even though slavery had been abolished years
before, racism was rampant in America. There were few brave enough to speak out
about what was happening. Black artists could perform in clubs, but were not
able to patron those same establishments because they were designated white
only. One of those black artists decided to take a stand. Billie Holiday, known
as Lady Day, recorded “Strange Fruit” on April 20, 1939 at Brunswick’s
World Broadcasting Studios with Frankie Newton’s Café Society Band. Much
later, in 1995, Cassandra Wilson recorded a cover of this harrowing song. Billie
Holidays ability to propel a listener into a time and place overshadows
Cassandra Wilson’s weaker version of “Strange Fruit”. Billie Holiday, upon
being approached with “Strange Fruit”, at first was uneasy about the song.
The message was so controversial it could have easily ruined her career. In
spite of the risk Billie performed it anyway. The message was too important. To
reinforce the inherent drama of the song the waiters, immediately before her
performing, would instruct the patrons to remain absolutely silent during the
performance. The house lights were turned down with only a pin-spot lighting her
face. When she finished, all the lights were turned out. When the house lights
came back up Billie was gone. There were no encores so the stark imagery would
be seared into the white audience’s mind. Billie Holidays version opens with a
very solemn melody from the trumpet, followed by a somber piano solo setting the
mood of the piece. She ignores the melody outlined by the introduction. She
knows the impact comes from the words rather than any specific feature of the
songs melodic or harmonic construction (Nicholson113). She also uses the grit in
her voice and fluctuating tones to portray the message of the piece. ` Cassandra
Wilson’s version lacks the power of Billie Holidays. There is a mysterious
quality to Cassandra’s voice. Which is accentuated by an octave guitar that is
keeping the rhythm, and a trumpet playing an eerie melody that seems to flow
from the bowels of the hatred that this piece speaks of. Most distinctly it
lacks a piano which added so much to Holidays version. Cassandra also uses
fluctuating tones in her voice to convey the message, much like Billie had. The
tempo of her singing is much slower, she draws out the lyrics until the last
word of the verse where she abruptly cuts it off. Billie Holidays version is
grander than Cassandra’s in part because of the era in which it was performed.
Also because of Lady Day’s ability to force these brutal images into the
listeners mind, making them a witness to the violent reality of racism in early
twentieth century America. Billie holiday should be held in the same regard as
Martin Luther King jr. and Malcom X because she paved the way for these future
leaders in the fight for civil rights.
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