The singer Rebecca Ferguson has been reported as having accepted the offer to play at Trump’s inauguration, under one condition:
I’ve been asked and this is my answer. If you allow me to sing “strange fruit” a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and down trodden black people in the United States. A song that is a reminder of how love is the only thing that will conquer all the hatred in this world, then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington. Best Rebecca X
For those who don’t know the song… well, first of all, you *should* know the song. Watch the video below. It’s one of the most powerful songs ever written. (Note, it’s about lynching. It may upset you more than you’d otherwise think).
The song is an appropriate one for the Trump inauguration, and not just for the obvious reason — as if its message that Black Lives Matter wasn’t an important enough one right now.
The song is famously “by” Billie Holiday — she made the song her own — but it wasn’t written by her. It was written by a man named Abel Meeropol.
Some have said that Holiday didn’t even really understand the song, no matter how well she performed it — the usual nonsense about black women. There’s no way an uneducated black woman, a survivor of sexual abuse, a drug addict, could have understood — *really* understood — that song. She had an “instinctive artistry”, that’s all. She didn’t understand the message she was sending.
The evidence people usually put forward for that is that when she first heard the song, she asked Meeropol what “pastoral” meant. This isn’t taken as evidence of an artist taking an intelligent interest and wanting to understand a particular nuance, using a word she hadn’t come across before, but somehow it’s seen as the opposite.
(Maya Angelou talks about meeting Holiday later, and Angelou’s son asking Holiday the same question. Holiday replied “It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means…. That’s what they do. That’s a goddam pastoral scene.”
I think she understood the song.)
Holiday’s record label, Columbia, wouldn’t release it. It was too controversial. She had to go to a tiny indie label to put it out. It still sold, eventually, and if Billie Holiday is remembered a century from now, it will be for that song above all else (no matter how good that “all else” is — and it is. She was one of the greats).
Abel Meeropol didn’t write the song under his own name, though. He wrote under the name Lewis Allen — after the names of his two biological sons, both of whom died in infancy.
He later adopted, and raised as his own, two more sons. Those two were Michael and Robert Meeropol, born Michael and Robert Rosenberg. They were orphaned because their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were (like Meeropol sr) members of the Communist party — and they were convicted of espionage, giving state secrets to Russia.
Julius was probably guilty. KGB files certainly seem to suggest that he was working for them. But they also suggest that Ethel Rosenberg was not guilty of the charges against her.
The consensus about Ethel Rosenberg seems to be that the “evidence” against her (the testimony of her brother David Greenglass, later recanted, which he said he only gave to save his own wife from the same fate) was coerced from her brother by one of the prosecution team, Roy Cohn.
Roy Cohn was a rising star of the legal world at the time. Cohn publicly admitted to coercing testimony from Greenglass, and also to illegally using his influence to get the judge in the case appointed and to persuade the judge to impose the death penalty.
Cohn’s “work” in that case brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and Cohn became a major figure in the McCarthy hearings that did more to damage American public life and political discourse than almost any other event of the last century. Cohn was particularly involved in the “lavender scare” which led to massively increased persecution of gay men.
(Cohn was himself a closeted gay man).
Cohn then went into private practice, specialising as an attorney in working for Mafia figures. One of his clients, one who is not so far as we know connected to the mob, was a New York slumlord. That slumlord was repeatedly charged, throughout the 1970s, with breaking anti-discrimination laws, denying black people housing.
That slumlord was Donald Trump, and Cohn was his mentor, and the single greatest influence on him in the 70s and early 80s.
(Trump’s father Fred, incidentally, who at the time Trump first worked with Cohn was the owner of the Trump organisation, marched with the Klan. He also had a famous Communist songwriter write against him:
I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project
Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
Blood on the leaves — blood at the roots. Everything about Strange Fruit and its aftermath and aftereffects resonates with Trump today. A woman who was sexually brutalised by powerful men, her agency ripped from her posthumously. Russian espionage used in the service of the far right. The societally-approved murder of black men, given a fig-leaf pretext of keeping order. Klan lynchings. Witch-hunts over unacceptable political opinions. Persecution of LGBT people.
But mostly, more than anything, those murders. Black people being murdered, in broad daylight. Their murderers being let off. Those who complain about the murders being considered subversive and controversial.
By their fruits shall ye know them, and the fruit of Fred Trump’s loins, and of Roy Cohn’s mentorship, is a strange and bitter crop indeed.
Black lives matter. Rebecca Ferguson’s statement matters. And she understands exactly what statement she is sending.
This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?