Singer Rebecca Ferguson owes much of her success to the British version of the hit TV talent show The X Factor, where she was the 2010 season runner-up. After six years and four albums, she seemed to have settled into a lucrative marketable career that drew equally on her singing skills, beauty, and ability to find a place in the sometimes interchangeable world of solo singers. Had it not been for an invitation from Donald Trump’s Inauguration planning Committee, which she accepted under one condition, Ferguson might have remained in the safe and untouchable world of singers who interpret the songbook but otherwise steer clear of bellicose political posturing. “There are many grey areas about the offer to perform,” she tweeted, “…but I will not be singing.”
Along with other singers, including Andrea Boccelli and Charlotte Church, arguably more A-list than Ferguson, she walked away from the opportunity, citing their refusal to approve her song choice. “I requested to sing ‘Strange Fruit’ as I felt it was the only song that would not compromise my artistic integrity… [it] …has a special empathy…f or African-American people… I wanted to create a moment of pause for people to reflect.”
The brutal images in the slow, dirge-like atmosphere of Billie Holliday’s original 1939 recording of this song, based on a poem by Abe Meeropol, have been carefully parsed through in the past nearly 70 years. The “fruit” is the product of Southern trees, the same limbs from which humans were lynched earlier in the century. Blood on the leaves, blood at the roots, and the land is baptized in a painful legacy of hate. Holliday’s version featured a piano interlude, a trumpet accentuating verses somewhere in the background, and Holliday building from a hush to a crescendo:
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to crop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
As expected, the planning committee deemed it inappropriate for an Inauguration. However, that didn’t stop the next celebrity from including it as an option for his DJ Playlist. After scores of singers responded to invitations with a “thanks, but no thanks”, (or in Charlotte Church’s case this tweet: “…a simple Internet search would show I think you’re a tyrant”), the committee reached out to Moby, whose initial response was apparently just uncontrolled incredulity. He, too, put down the opportunity, and shortly thereafter released a Spotify Playlist that included the following songs: “Imagine” (John Lennon) “Get Up, Stand Up” (Bob Marley) “Masters of War” (Bob Dylan), “We Shall Overcome” (Pete Seeger), “A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke), “What’s Goin’ On” (Marvin Gaye), “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Gil Scot Heron), “Who’ll Stop The Rain?” (Creedence Clearwater Revival), and “Strange Fruit” (Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, many others.)
Most of Moby’s list is understandable and expected and probably predictable, but it’s nice to see the Gil Scot Heron inclusion, which in 1975 so clearly forecast the fact that everything was being and would be televised and the only way to understand it would be through visual means. The bridge in Cooke’s song, in which the singer goes into town only to get shot down (literally and these days figuratively) is heartbreaking in its timelessness.
The audacity of any planning committee for Trump’s Inauguration even considering Moby for an appearance must mean they didn’t read his 9 November 2016 “Open letter to America”, in which he wrote: “…this is the America who has now elected a dim-witted, racist misogynist.” The clear division in the culture wars so popular during previous Republican administrations was seen again at Meryl Streep’s 8th January Golden Globe speech, in which she tore at the fabric of Trump’s America without mentioning his name. “There was one performance this year that stunned me,” she noted, referring to Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter. “…this instinct to humiliate… gives permission for other people to do the same thing.”
A million think pieces, fiery speeches, and fact-checking takedowns of a demagogue’s rhetoric can sometimes overwhelm the true power of great art, and specifically the strength of a song to save or change the world. There’s a reason Bruce Springsteen wrote, in his 1984 song “No Surrender”, “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”. Dig deeper in the jewels from the American songbook and more uncomfortable truth can make even the darkest future tolerable.
These songs are not alternatives to Moby’s Trump Inauguration playlist, but complements to it.
“Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” (1930, E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Jay Gorney) There are few songs more bitter and heartbroken than this one, written and intended for the 1932 Broadway musical revue Americana. It’s been recorded by everybody from Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee to Mandy Patinkin. What’s so remarkable about this song is how it so unapologetically held on to its anger. “They used to tell me, I was building a dream,” the singer starts. By the song’s bridge, when he remembers his time in WWI (“half a million boots / slogging through hell”) we know that the hopelessness won’t be remedied by a dime, a pat on the back, and a patronizing smile.
“Sail Away” (1972, Randy Newman) If “Amazing Grace” was a song written by a slave ship captain whose changed his mind en route to America and decided to bring his supply of humans back to Africa, “Sail Away” is the opposite. It’s blanketed by a beautiful string arrangement, like so many of Newman’s songs that can confuse the naïve listener. The song is about promises, the idea that in America, in this new strange land, you won’t have to run through the jungle or live in fear of lions, tigers, and mamba snakes. You’ll be “happy”, but only on the white man’s terms. This is a song about the scars of our nation’s origins that many would prefer remain in the closet.
“American Tune” (1973, Paul Simon) This is another song about ships, about long voyages from the home country to this new land of ours. It’s about battered souls and shattered dreams, about immigrants who dream of dying and seeing their souls in the sky all the while embraced by the Statue of Liberty, everything in a dream, nothing certain. Simon performed this at Jimmy Carter’s Inauguration Ball in 1977, singing about how “we come in the ages’ most uncertain hour”. Such sentiments might not have been relevant to the Carter Administration, but they certainly apply now.
“Blind Willie McTell” (1983, Bob Dylan) This one continues the metaphor of movement, journeys, bloody histories “All the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem”. Dylan based the melody on “St. James Infirmary”, and the careful listener understands why this piano ballad, with soft acoustic guitar accompaniment, is inextricably linked to that history of blood and tears, lands “where many martyrs fell”. Everything here is a jewel. Nothing is irrelevant. Dylan also adds images that link his song to “Strange Fruit” (“See them big plantations a-burning / Can’t you hear the cracking of the whips? / Smell that sweet magnolia blossom burning / See the ghost of slavery ships”.) This is about the power of the blues, about wanting authenticity, but it’s also about the loss of hope when you realize you can never touch that level of truth:
“Well God is in His heaven / and we all want what’s his / but power and greed and corruptible seed seems to be all that there is”.
“Democracy” (1992, Leonard Cohen) We don’t always depend of the late Leonard Cohen for hope and strength, but he comes close to it in this song and it’s a fitting ending to this list. Again, it’s a voyage ballad, about moving forward: “Sail on, Sail on / Oh mighty ship of state / To the shores of need / Past the reefs of greed / through the squalls of hate”. Don Henley performed this at a 1993 “MTV Rock & Roll Inauguration” party for Bill Clinton, in times that are gone forever. What will never fade, though, is the ragged hopeful feelings in the final verse:
I’m sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
getting lost in that hopeless little screen
The roots of resistance and the pure power of songs that matter have always been circulating in the malaise of fear and loathing that has been generated from every corner of America’s national experiment. We are great at agitprop, sloganeering, hectoring, and preaching to choirs in mirrored halls and echo chambers. We have a limited shelf life, but the songs will sing on forever.