Tales, Truths & Tirades – 16 March 2017

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The formal title of the second-year course that I present at university, Advanced Journalism, sounds quite serious, but it is basically just a practically oriented introduction to the world of radio. Because music forms such an important part of the content on radio, I’ve taken the liberty to introduce a “Song of the Day” to each lecture. This means that we start every class by listening to music.
The songs vary widely (and wildly!) depending on my mood. This year’s list includes Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga”, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding, Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Imagine” by John Lennon, “Spanish Train” by Chris de Burgh, and even Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”.
Last week I decided to surprise my students with something completely different. I chose a song that I suspected they’d never heard before and that I haven’t listened to for quite some time.
When I started doing a bit of research, I discovered how little I actually knew about this iconic song. It was written in 1936 by a Jewish teacher in New York, Abel Meeropol. He was deeply disturbed at the continuation of racism in the USA. A photograph of a lynching haunted him for days. He eventually sat down and wrote a poem about it which he later also set to music.
The rest is history. Jazz legend Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of this original protest song sold more than a million copies and became her biggest-selling record. At a time when political protest was not often expressed in musical form, “Strange Fruit” depicted racism in all of its brutality. The three short verses are all the more powerful for their understated and ironic language.
The lyrics are an extended metaphor linking a tree’s fruit with lynching victims. “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, Black body swinging in the Southern breeze, Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
In 1999, TIME magazine named “Strange Fruit”, which was covered by numerous artists over the years, the “song of the century”.