“Southern trees bearing strange fruit | Blood on the leaves and blood at the roots | Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze | Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
Last call. Lights low. Waiters paused. Bodies still. Silence would fill every corner of the smokey lounges Billie Holiday performed at. She’d stand in front of an attentive and diverse crowd waiting to hear the sobering impact of Jim Crow dressed in song: Strange Fruit. A poignant reality, leaving most to seek solace in the final swallows of their vodka. This made performing the song to close out the night most ideal.
Harry Anslinger, the first FBI Commissioner who initiated cannabis prohibition and the stigma’s that maintain it, hated Jazz music. He was convinced that the dreadful, elongated sounds created by these musicians were influenced by “Jazz Cigarettes” aka Marijuana. The rebellion the Strange Fruit provoked shook Harry to his core. He eventually ordered Billie to stop performing the song entirely. Instead, she planted at the intersection of Jim Crow, Prohibition, and Black womanhood; and she dared the delegates of white supremacy to move her. Unfortunately, they did.
It’s no secret that Harry’s motives leaned into eradicating a culture of people as opposed to answering a drug epidemic. The vitriol he reserved for black drug users and recovering addicts never showed up for people who looked like him.
Harry began targeting Billie for her purported heroin addiction in 1939. Given his undeniable racism, the timing of his focus on Billie so soon after the release of Strange Fruit, wasn’t a coincidence. From that day on, Harry’s agents pursued Holiday. The extent of their haunting showed up in her paranoia as she was being transported to the hospital, saying, “They are going to arrest me in this damn bed.”
“Harry heard whispers that she was using heroin. After she flatly refused to be silent about racism, he assigned an agent named Jimmy Fletcher to track her every move. Harry hated to hire black agents, but if he sent white guys into Harlem and Baltimore, they stood out straight away. Jimmy Fletcher was the answer,” Johann Hari in Chasing The Scream.
Holiday died with sanctioned neglect sitting at her deathbed. Harry ordered guards to prevent any and everything from entering her room, from visitors to medication.
Despite her shattering death, Holiday has a lasting legacy. After her death, she garnered 23 Grammys and was inducted into the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2017. In 1999 Time Magazine named Strange Fruit the Song of the century.