The film ‘Gone With The Wind’ was released in 1939.
Fine southern ladies and gentlemen living civilised lives in elegant houses on huge plantations, attended by grateful slaves who were thankful to their kindly masters for being so considerate.
Of course, the reality wasn’t quite like that.
The truth was, in the south over five thousand African Americans were lynched by white mobs.
Strung up from the nearest tree and left hanging.
Photographs were taken of the smiling crowd, much like a picnic or a barbeque.
Grinning for the camera, pointing at the hanging corpses.
But in that same year, 1939, Billie Holliday released a song that would begin to change all that.
Ahmet Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, describes her song as the beginning of the civil rights movement.
And yet it didn’t scream outrage, it wasn’t a cry of horror.
It was softly, gently ironic.
Every evening, at the end of her nightclub act, Billie Holliday would have the room lights darkened all the way down.
Just a spotlight on her as she sang softly and gently what everyone assumed would be another romantic ballad.
She started quietly:
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit:
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”
By the end of the first verse the audience were silent.
They didn’t know what to make of it, or the next verse:
“Pastoral scene of the gallant south:
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
Now the crowd shifted uncomfortably:
“Here is 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 drop,
Here is a strange and a bitter crop.”
Then the spotlight went out, and Billie Holliday left the stage.
No encore just stunned silence.
The unsettling words lingering like a surreal nightmare.
No mention of corpses in the song: just the sweet scent of magnolia and strange fruit hanging from trees.
Mass murder described in gentle irony.
It became the first example of a kind of music we would later take for granted.
The intelligent protest song.
Thirty years later, Bob Dylan would quote it as the song that influenced him most.
‘Strange Fruit’ is still quoted by every civil rights leader.
But it wasn’t written by a black man.
It was written by a white Jew living in the Bronx.
Abel Meeropol was so horrified by the images he’d seen on postcards, he wrote it and persuaded Billie Holliday to sing it.
In 1999, Time Magazine named it ‘The Song Of The Century’.
The quiet, intelligent song that started a movement.
The movement which eventually led to a black man being elected President Of The USA.
Proving that, with creativity you don’t need to scream to be heard.