Every other Monday in Listening Closer, Jeffrey Overstreet opens up the art of songcraft, sharing his own musical experiences, interpretations, and epiphanies while soliciting alternate interpretations and discussion.
Do you remember the telephone game? You would whisper something in a classmate’s ear—“My sister lost a tooth, put it under her pillow, and found a nickel in the morning!” Then you’d wait. Your classmate would whisper the same message to his neighbor, and she to hers, until the message moved and morphed all the way around the room and arrived back to you: “Your sister’s tooth fell out and got lost under a pillow this morning, and when she found it you gave her 25 cents.”I cannot hear exactly what “Strange Fruit” meant to those who heard it in the late 1930s. That was generations ago, in a different world. Yet I can take to heart what it means to me now.
Sometimes I wonder how well I understand my favorite songs. Am I hearing what the singer meant to sing, what the songwriter hoped I would hear? I was startled, for instance, to learn the origins of the song “Amazing Grace”—how it was written by a former slave trader overcome with awe that Jesus would love him and forgive him after so many racist acts. It was a thing of beauty born out of confession, lament, and suffering. After I learned that, the song changed for me. It was no longer a song about the comfort of being “found”; it had become an anthem about the awe-inspiring generosity of Jesus and my debt of gratitude to him.
And it made me more intent on listening closely, on making sure that I really hear what a song wants me to hear.
I listened to a lot of music in 2015. The song that meant the strongest impression on me, though, traveled a long, long way to find my ears.
There is a photograph taken by Leonard Beitler in 1930 that shows two black men—Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith—who had been lynched, strung up in trees, and murdered. That photograph inspired a teacher named Abel Meeropol to write (under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan”) a poem called “Bitter Fruit.” Those lines became the lyrics for Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit.” You probably know it. In 1999, TIME Magazine heralded it as the “Song of the Century.” It has a place of honor in the Library of Congress, and has been covered by countless others, including such famous artists as Nina Simone, Diana Ross, Annie Lennox, and Jeff Buckley.
I’m almost ashamed to admit this, but it’s true: I first heard “Strange Fruit” in college when a white guy—Sting, to be specific—covered it. I thought he’d written it. I had no idea about the original until I started dating a Billie Holiday fan and heard the recording on a greatest hits collection. That’s when I suddenly woke up, heard what was being sung, and recoiled:
Later, when I became a Holiday fan myself, I would skip that track. It put ugly pictures in my head. But the song haunted me, and this year it took hold. In 2015, I heard two masterful performances of “Strange Fruit”—one on José James’s album Yesterday I Had the Blues, and another on Cassandra Wilson’s Coming Forth by Day. While I cannot imagine the anguish and grief of the one who wrote the poem that inspired it almost 80 years ago, it remains immediate, essential—even medicinal.
This fall, as part of my studies in Seattle Pacific University’s MFA in Creative Writing program, I was reading Eula Biss’s collection of essays called Notes From No Man’s Land. In the opening essay “Time and Distance Overcome,” Biss writes about how the invention of the telephone changed America—or, more specifically, how the spread of telephone poles across the continent became a visual sign of a nation becoming “unified” by technological innovation. Americans, once scattered—separate and distant from sea to shining sea—were now just a phone call away from one another.
But then Biss’s chapter takes a terrible turn. She begins recounting another history of the telephone pole in America: its function as a cross upon which white men crucified black men; or as a gallows from which black men were hung; or as a whipping post upon which black men were beaten to death; or as a stake upon which black men were burned. She lists example after example after historically verified example. It’s relentless. It’s sickening.
One passage about the murders of black men on telephone poles ends with this:
From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, black men were lynched for crimes real and imagined, for whistles, for rumors, for “disputing with a white man,” for “unpopularity,” for “asking a white woman in marriage,” for “peeping in a window.”
As she delves into the details of America’s racist history, Biss reveals how these crimes were actually demonstrations of fearful opposition to the very concept of unity and connectedness in humankind. White America liked the convenience and advantage of the telephone—but no, they did not want togetherness and unity. Not if it meant accepting those who were different from them.
Ultimately, Biss’s essay burns an indelible brand into the reader’s mind. At least, that was its effect on me: Now, I cannot look at a telephone pole without thinking of the children of God who died there. I think about how those men suffered, how the last sounds they heard were the jeers and curses and obscenities from people who would turn around, go to church, listen to sermons about loving their neighbors, and read the charge to “seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” I think about that and I hear Holiday sing:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh
Much has changed since lynch mobs ran rampant in America. The Civil Rights Movement is a story of lives sacrificed for the cause of equality and justice. We’ve passed laws, established programs, and cultivated communities so that America can become that welcoming, connected, unified society that our national anthems ask God to bless.
And yet, not much has changed.When ignorant and fearful people unite, they become powerful. And when they are powerful, they become increasingly inclined to exercise violence against whatever or whomever aggravates their insecurity. (Come to think of it, there is a Sting song relevant to this trend: “History Will Teach Us Nothing.”)
I know. I’ve been swept up in it. For me, it came from Christians eager to paint sexual minorities as monsters and threats, intent upon forcing them to either change their ways or live in cultural exile. By God’s grace, I came to discover that close friends were suffering from this treatment, and in getting to know them, I began to see how I had trusted only those voices that spoke to my insecurities, failing completely to love my neighbors. My condemnation had nothing to do with the fruits of the spirit, and everything to do with arrogance and fear.
Soon after I finished reading Biss’s book, Breaking News! At a rally for a certain presidential candidate, as the candidate’s supporters cheered and laughed, a protestor supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement was forcibly removed from the room. As she was escorted away, someone had shouted, “light the motherf***er on fire.”
We want to think that America’s history of prejudice is just that—history. But the evil spirits that burned African Americans at the stake less than a century ago are still alive and bloodthirsty in America today. If that fact is troubling to contemplate—if I decide to “skip that track” on the record and avoid its ugly truth—then I’ll be less inclined to notice or care when it flares up in my own neighborhood. The neighbors I am called to love will not sense in me a willingness to suffer alongside them, or an interest in learning through shared lament.
So it seems entirely appropriate, even important, that “Strange Fruit” should return to regular rotation on the American playlist. That it be sung with urgency. That it remind us of how, not so many years ago, you could buy photograph-postcards showing white Americans having picnics beneath the corpses of black men hung from trees. During our parents’ or grandparents’ lifetimes, they could stick a stamp on a sign of satanic indifference and send it to their friends: the “black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze,” the “strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees.”
That is, in fact, how the “Song of the Century” found its way from one listener to another all the way to me and you. A photograph of an ugly truth inspired a poem, which inspired a song, which silenced Holiday’s audiences and inspired solemn ovations.
I cannot hear exactly what “Strange Fruit” meant to those who heard it in the late 1930s. That was generations ago, in a different world. Yet I can take to heart what it means to me now.
And it means a lot. I know that if the cameras aren’t on, if I’m not vigilant to defend the truth that all men and women are created equal, then the scenes in this song will never be history. It will remain here and now. It is happening today. Who is more likely to be rich in this country? Who is more likely to be poor? Who travels into America’s arms and finds welcome and compassion, and who finds suspicion, accusation, and rejection?
Sometimes this hatred turns to violence behind closed doors, away from witnesses and cameras. Sometimes it happens in the open. Sometimes it’s a lynch mob. Sometimes it’s a playground bully with a rock in his hand. Sometimes it’s a police officer. Sometimes it’s a professing Christian.
Play this song. Listen to it closely. Take it to heart. Let it lead your actions. Let it influence your vote. Let it inspire you to “Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
On a different note: I want to thank my Listening Closer readers for their enthusiasm and support on this, my one-year anniversary of this column. It has been a rewarding journey so far, striving to receive what songs have to give.
Last week, I asked my Facebook community: “What songs really meant something to you in 2015?” Now, I’ll hand the microphone to some of them so that they can open our ears to hear what music is meaning to them.
Daniel Bowman, Jr.: “No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross” by Sufjan Stevens. The first time I heard it, the quiet intensity and raw lyrics just got me in the gut—I cried. It simultaneously comforted and shook me. It had the ring of truth.
Adrienne Kerrigan: “Keep the Streets Empty for Me” by Fever Ray. This one seems to me a song for young parents and insomniacs. Some songs are meant to be heard alone, and this is one I can only really listen to alone. It’s like a rare sound I never hear enough of.
Ken Priebe: “Monument” by Fossil Collective—partly because of its enigmatic opening lyric, which I just love: “You laid a rose upon your father’s honor / And the wrong words are coming out.” The way this song swells and builds from beginning to end takes you on a journey—one that spoke to me through some challenging times last year, but also helped lift me out of them.
Sarah E Partain: “Sound and Color” by Alabama Shakes is a great album opener. I love its warm vibrophone intro, interesting melodies, and fat drum tones, and could sit and listen to it over and over again through headphones. With shades of gospel, R&B, and Motown, it is such a delightful surprise.
John Barber: The most intensely personal song for me this year was “The Shadow Can’t Have Me” by Arthur Alligood. Much of my December (and continuing into January) has been a walk through the valley of the shadow. I have needed Arthur’s insistence that “I walk through the valley of the shadow/ but the shadow can’t have me” over and over and over again. I’m truly grateful for this song.
Sarah Welch: “Hello My Old Heart” by the Oh Hellos. 2015 was a year of stretching and heartbreak and learning to be friends and loving again, and this song (which quotes C.S. Lewis on being vulnerable with your heart) has been a good reminder to not lock away.
Mark Moring: “All My Favorite People Are Broken” by Over the Rhine. I’ve always liked it, but 2015 was a year of much brokenness with family and friends, which also served to underline my own brokenness and sin, which made me appreciate grace and mercy all the more. That’s the point of the song, I think. We don’t (or shouldn’t) revel in the brokenness of others, but instead walk the road with them precisely because of our own. So when they played it at a local show recently, weaving in the theme from “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” I was undone. Here it is:
Scott Wilder: “Eugene” by Sufjan Stevens. Sufjan’s songs about the complicated relationship with his mother always connect with me, and this one is no different. It captures that tension between pain and longing—how our minds pine for those small moments of happiness—even the thrill of remembering cigarettes hidden in a sleeve, which is a detail we know because we were close enough to find them. Also, the song doesn’t force our emotions to end on a falsely cheerful note, though it does encourage me to pray to what I cannot see.
Adam Milling: “Watch Over Us” by The Lone Bellow—a prayer of comfort in this sorrow-weary yet beautiful world.