When is a cover song better than the original? Only you can decide. This week Karate takes on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” MAGNET’s Ryan Burleson pulls the pin. Take cover!
One of the great protest songs of all time, “Strange Fruit” was originally published in 1936 as a poem in The New York Teacher, three years before vocal jazz icon Billie Holiday would introduce it to a much wider audience with her Milt Gabler-produced version on Commodore. Holiday wasn’t the first to set the poem’s couplets to music, either; that honor could be claimed by the poem’s author, Abel Meeropol, who had already performed the song with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, in several New York City venues before Holiday put her own spin on it in 1939. Nevertheless, it’s Holiday’s stoic and brooding take that we remember most, a seminal work that paved the singer’s path to stardom while the country’s tragic race problem began to spill over into public view in perhaps the most significant way since the years leading up to the Civil War.
Judging by a cursory Google search, how Holiday came to know of the Meeropol poem is up for debate. What’s much more clear, however, is that the singer felt a personal attachment to the song’s horrific depiction of racism, perhaps no more sordidly displayed than in following lines: “Pastoral scene of the gallant South/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh/Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.” While no one in Holiday’s immediate family had been killed in such a gruesome fashion—she was raised in the Northeast, where lynchings were far less of a threat for African-Americans than in the South—she had nonetheless seen the ugly reality of discrimination play out in the life of her father, a jazz musician who was denied treatment for a fatal lung disorder due to racial prejudice just a few years earlier. It’s no wonder, then, that Holiday’s bandmates reported that she would wind up in tears nearly every time they performed the song together.
For its part, Karate’s somber take on “Strange Fruit” is a shorter, bluesier rendering, though one that’s no less affecting. Leader Geoff Farina’s ineffably smooth guitar solo goes a long way toward that end, but so does the trio’s overall reverence for the issue at hand. Indeed, Karate’s earnestness is equally present in covers of protest songs by Mike Watt, Bob Dylan, Mark Hollis and others, which appear alongside “Strange Fruit” on the band’s In The Fishtank sessions, recorded while on tour in the Netherlands in 2004.