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Our Lady of Sorrows

Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also. (Luke 2:35)

Many pop music fans were no doubt scratching their heads when Time Magazine anointed “Strange Fruit” as best song of the century in 1999. This moody protest against lynching got no air play when it was first recorded in 1939, never topped the charts and wasn’t even considered very tuneful. Although later regarded as a classic, “Strange Fruit” was so identified with Billie Holiday, the black singer who first recorded it, that for a long time few other artists dared to stake a claim to it.

Even though the singer and the song now seem made for each other, there was nothing in Holiday’s previous repertoire of jazz standards to suggest anything remotely like “Strange Fruit” would become her signature song. It had been written by Abel Meeropol, a New York high school teacher and songwriter who had been outraged by a grisly photograph of a double lynching that he had seen in a left-wing publication. Holiday herself had no political leanings to speak of and may not even have understood the full import of the words when she first began singing them. Yet she brought such depth of feeling to the song that it registered as the soulful cry of an oppressed people:

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 Lady Sings the Blues, the movie version of her life starring Diana Ross, Holiday’s connection to “Strange Fruit” was explained by her encounter with a lynch mob while touring the South. No such encounter ever took place. Holiday herself said she was drawn to the song because her father had been turned away from segregated hospitals when dying of pneumonia brought on by his exposure to poison gas during World War I. She certainly needed no introduction to the hard edges of racism or to just how hard life could be as a poor black girl growing up in Baltimore before the civil rights era. Born to an unwed mother, she was sent away for truancy at age nine, sent away again after she was raped at 11 and jailed for prostitution at 14. She was exploited and abused by the men in her life. By the time she became world famous as a jazz vocalist, she was already hooked on alcohol and hard drugs, which would kill her when she was only 44. All of this fed the well of raw feeling she would draw on when she sang her songs.

Along with Edith Piaf and Judy Garland, singers of her era with whom she is often identified, Holiday had an extraordinary ability to express the pain and longing of the human condition. These three did not merely sing sad songs, they embodied them. Each was abused and exploited as a child. Each was unlucky in love. Each struggled against addiction and died comparatively young. Each singer had a devoted following among those who saw in her suffering a reflection of their own: the abandoned, the persecuted, the afflicted, the self-destructive and the lovelorn.

It was once primarily the place of religion to offer consolation to those who have been damaged by life. Christianity casts Jesus of Nazareth in the role of a “suffering servant” who is sacrificed for the sins of the world. For Roman Catholics in particular, the Virgin Mary plays a similar role under the mantle of Our Lady of Sorrows, a term sometimes applied to Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf. This is the Mary who is seen cradling the broken body of her son in Michelangelo’s Pietà. Outwardly, of course, it would appear she bears scant resembalnce to a trio of pop singers who led anything but exemplary lives. Yet clearly their followers saw something in the depth and purity of their suffering that transcended the tawdriness of their circumstances. Some might even call it holiness.

David Margolick, “Strange Fruit,” Vanity Fair

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