Blood on the leaves And blood at the root Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees —Strange Fruit, sung by Billie Holiday, 1939
MUSIC is politics when deafness is power. Billie Holiday’s entire life, her childhood, her poverty, her husky voice, her musical phrasing, her drugs, her cancer, her memories of her mother who became a prostitute and the father she never knew (who is said to have died without treatment because he was a ‘negro’)—were formed from a state of oppression like a neck under a boot.
The neck of a black. The boot of a white. And not only George Floyd.
How many centuries has that trampling been only partly heard?
Not all want to hear, it seems. So too in 1939 in the Cafè Society in Greenwich Village, New York—a cafe established to collect funds for the Communist Party—when Billie Holiday sang Strange Fruit.
For that small performance, Billie’s face was dark. Her voice seemed burdened by ghosts wanting to talk. The lyrics of Strange Fruit came in fragments. “Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh…Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
Billie Holiday and jazz: her voice seemed to read lamentation. But not only that.
The lyrics and melody of Strange Fruit were written by Abel Meeropol, a teacher and member of the Communist Party. Meeropol was moved to compose the song when he saw a photo of two black men who had been beaten and lynched by the mob. It quickly became the anti-racism protest song, even before Billie Holiday sang it.
Over history, jazz and the Left have walked in tandem. The American Communist Party, which was under continual government surveillance, was at the forefront of opposition to racial segregation and demanded justice, particularly during the 1930s depression. Its membership rose rapidly, supported by intellectuals, writers and arts practitioners. In Harlem New York, Communist Party events usually presented jazz.
But Adorno, the famous German philosopher who was also a composer, thought that expression of revolt did not lie in jazz. He did not see the blues—in Bessie Smith’s and Billie Holiday’s bitter tones—as something that reminds us that misery must be eliminated, that the situation has to change.
Maybe this was because Adorno saw jazz as springing from Negro spirituals, the residue of slavery: ‘lamentations of the lack of freedom’ which in a state of oppression, do not revolt. Adorno rejected the idea that jazz came from ‘wild’ Africa. As he saw it, jazz came from the ‘domesticated body in bondage’.
In other words, there was no seed of emancipation.
Adorno knew, of course, that jazz was inseparable from syncopation: avoiding ‘basic rhythm’, with the beat falling unpredictably. But Adorno did not see this as freedom, nor improvisation that differentiated jazz from European music. He saw improvisation in jazz as merely ‘ornamental’. With its low vibrato and ‘whimpering saxophone’, he thought that jazz was ‘suitable as a mass commodity’…
Adorno could not possibly envisage the birth of modern jazz—that there would be Miles Davis with Kind of Blue which was first performed in 1959, 10 years after Adorno’s death. At least this work could be seen as music of liberation, freed of rigid tonality, with independent improvisers independent of harmonic base.
Even before that, in the early and mid 1940s, bebop was born. This variant of jazz hardened into rebellion, rejecting music that was sweet and popular in the style of Louis Armstrong and his happy, nice tunes.
Yes, there was nothing nice in bebop. At a time when blacks were suffering acute segregation and were entrapped by unemployment, bebop became the statement of separation from the American social mainstream—separation in music, dress and behavior.
Amiri Baraka, the black poet activist, thought bebop was the part of jazz that resisted being sucked into trash music, monopoly music.
E.J. Hobsbawm, the famous Marxist historian, would agree. He thought that “music lends itself to any kind of protest and rebelliousness much better than most other forms of the arts.” And in his small book, The Jazz Scene, he said that the blues singer Bessie Smith was the “purest jazz protestor.”
But who listens? Who remembers? American capitalism has the power to suck in, after embracing, almost all forms of resistance, and turn them into part of that capitalism. Like jazz. It is now a legitimate part of that society so full of contradiction.
Including its most vile racist expression.
Today, the Ku Klux Klan, formerly the angry voice outside, has transformed into the face of politicians, police, city planners, and various parts of the establishment that tacitly perpetuate the alienation of ‘niggers’.
Last month, George Floyd was murdered. And eyes were opened, and ears were opened. Billie Holiday sings on, and once again there are black bodies hanging.