Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song

When we acquired a picture book manuscript about the song "Strange Fruit" from author Gary Golio in December 2013, we had no idea the song would be making news just as the book was ready for publication. On February 1, we'll officially release Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song with illustrations by Charlotte Riley-Webb.


Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher, poet, and activist, wrote "Strange Fruit" in the late 1930s after seeing a photograph of a lynching. He brought the song to Barney Josephson, the owner of the Greenwich Village club Cafe Society, known as "the wrong place for the Right people." It had opened at the very end of 1938, and at a time when clubs such as Harlem's famous Cotton Club forced black patrons to watch from the back, Cafe Society gave black customers the best seats in the house.

Billie Holiday performed at Cafe Society regularly, and she first sang "Strange Fruit" there in 1939. While others have performed it over the years, it is particularly associated with her. You can find a video of her performing the song live near the end of her life in London, England, here.

Billie Holiday died in July 1959, yet the song's power remains undiminished. Singers from Nina Simone to Annie Lennox to John Legend to India Arie have performed it over the years. In 1999, Time magazine named "Strange Fruit" the song of the century.

It recently made headlines when singer Rebecca Ferguson refused to perform at Donald Trump's inauguration unless she could sing it. "If you allow me to sing 'Strange Fruit', a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial," Ferguson said, "A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington." The song was also featured in a post-election episode of ABC's Blackish.


An interior spread from Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song
Carole Boston Weatherford, who wrote a notable book about Billie Holiday for a YA audience, had this to say about our picture book: "With poignant text and striking art, Golio and Riley-Webb put the anti-lynching hymn and racial hatred in historic context for young readers of the twenty-first century. Provocative yet age appropriate, this book is not only a window to past violence but a mirror for horrors unfolding today."

In a starred review, Kirkus Reviews called the book, "A must-read, must-discuss that will speak to children and linger with adults."

If you want to learn more, here are a few additional resources:
More about the song and Billie Holiday from The Guardian
More about Abel Meeropol from NPR
Photographs of Billie Holiday from the Library of Congress
Nina Simone discussing and performing "Strange Fruit" (warning: contains graphic imagery)

By the way, if any readers are going to be attending ALA Midwinter over the weekend, be sure to stop by our booth to get a copy of the book signed by Charlotte Riley-Webb on Saturday at 2:30 pm in booth 1829.

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