Reviews

Strange Fruit

Kirsten Markson

A meditation on the song of the same name that chillingly relates the story of a lynching.

Strange Fruit

Airtime: 8 April 2003
Cast: Cast (as themselves): Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Pete Seeger, Amiri Baraka, Michael Rosenberg, Robert Rosenberg
Subtitle: Premiere date
Network: PBS
Creator: Joel Katz
Amazon

Joel Katz's Strange Fruit is a meditation on the song of the same name that chillingly relates the story of a lynching. Written by a Jewish American from the Bronx and famously recorded in 1939 by Billie Holiday, the song is presented in the film as the root of the union between American activism and arts. From this protest song, the filmmakers suggest, came all others. While this might not be true, there is no doubt that "Strange Fruit" occupies a unique place in American music. In making the film, Katz not only focuses on Billie Holiday's place in the history of American protest songs, but also Abel Meeropol, the little known teacher and Communist activist who wrote and scored the classic tune.

Katz's documentary presents a compelling investigation of the connections between the anti-lynching (and later Civil Rights) movements and the struggle of the American Communist Party, of which Meeropol was a member, through the writing and performance of "Strange Fruit." The rise in popularity of the Communist Party in the United States in the 1930s coexisted with a continuing efflorescence of African American arts and anti-segregation activism, especially in New York City.

While the two movements existed concurrently, they were separated geographically, with Communist activity centered in immigrant populations in the Bronx and African American activism in Harlem. This gulf, as well as a perceived ideological one, are two of many reasons the connections between the two movements have remained largely unexamined in mainstream histories. In Strange Fruit, Katz underlines these connections by focusing on the making of a song.

He centers his investigation on the meeting between Holiday and Meeropol. The story goes that Meeropol approached Holiday to record the song at the Café Society, the only integrated club in New York at the time. The club, located in Greenwich Village, featured both European style cabaret and American jazz. Holiday agreed to record the song, but was turned down by several major labels, until she went to Commodore Records. Then, though radio stations then refused to play the song, the record sold rapidly, ultimately reaching #16 on the charts.

"Strange Fruit" helped sustain Billy Holiday's career and secured her place in protest song history. Abel Meeropol's place in that history, however, has been obscured by general misconceptions about the authorship of the song, as well as Holiday's own assertions in later years, including her claim that the song was written specifically for her and that she put it to music. Neither is true. Meeropol himself scored the song and his wife Anne was the first to perform it in the late 1930s.

The Meeropols are involved in another aspect of complicated U.S. history: they were members of the group of American Communists that included Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. When the Rosenbergs were executed for treason, the Meeropols adopted their two sons, Robert and Michael. They are both featured prominently in the documentary, providing anecdotes about the political and personal details of life with their adoptive parents. One such tidbit is the fact that Abel Meeropol was often amused that his name was sometimes included in anthologies of great African American songwriters. At the same time that he was able to laugh at this error, they recall, he did insist on being given credit for the song.

The two brothers also speak directly to the often fractured relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Robert and Michael point out that their parents, and other American Jewish activists, joined the anti-lynching and Civil Rights movements because these struggles echoed their own ongoing fight against oppression and racism.

While it's not always clear how and why the relationship between the two groups has deteriorated so significantly since the end of the Civil Rights movement, the film proposes that the history of "Strange Fruit" might help to bridge present rifts. The artistic partnership between Holiday and Meeropol, however strained at times, is symbolic of the potential for two activists from different backgrounds to work together to promote religious and political freedom, and freedom from the fear of racial persecution.

With this collaboration in mind, it is striking that poet and playwright Amiri Baraka is one of the film's "talking heads." Baraka has regained notoriety in the past year for his poem "Somebody Blew Up America," perceived to be anti-Semitic, as it refers to reports of Israel's previous knowledge of the 9-11 attacks. Baraka's presence in a film that reveals a creative and political union of African and Jewish Americans complicates the reactionary labeling of him as anti-Semitic. Indeed, in the same 9-11 poem that caused such controversy, he compares the Holocaust and the execution of the Rosenbergs to atrocities suffered by African Americans.

In staging a public conversation between African American and Jewish American activists with the history of "Strange Fruit" as a background, Katz's film both uncovers history and illuminates the present. In bringing together these various issues -- including racism, America's unexamined history of lynching, and the relationship between African and Jewish American activism -- Katz suggests that they are intimately connected. This may sound simplistic, but it is an effective strategy for posing questions and inciting discussion. Strange Fruit offers historical facts and productive commentary. To its credit, though, the film doesn't offer simple answers to any of the questions it raises.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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