Sidney Bechet: Strange Fruit
Sidney Bechet (soprano sax)
Really The Blues (Living Era)
Composed by Lewis Allan.
Recorded: New York, September 13, 1941
Rating: 100/100 (learn more)
The Billie Holiday recording of this song is justly famous. By contrast, this version is not well known outside the limited ranks of jazz writers and the most intense jazz lovers. That is a cultural tragedy because this is one of the ultimate masterpieces of musical art performed and captured on record in the 20th century. (Astonishingly, in his major biography of Bechet, John Chilton basically dismisses this recording with a one-sentence wave of his hand.)
Besides pure musical art, this is drama of the highest order. It is the tragedy Shakespeare would have created if he had lived as a black musician in the American South during the Jim Crow era (1876-1965). The title "Strange Fruit" refers to two African-American men in Marion, Indiana, hanging from a tree upon which they'd been lynched by a white mob in 1930. Haunted by a photograph of this grisly event, a Jewish high-school teacher in the Bronx named Abel Meeropol wrote the song under a pseudonym in 1936.
With its striking lyrics, Billie Holiday's recording is transfixing. But to me, Bechet's instrumental version is even more powerful. And his soprano sax, with its famous intense, throbbing vibrato, offers the perfect instrument for expressing the meaning and emotion of this ultimate cry of the heart and protestation against the stark inhumanity of lynching. The recording can be enjoyed purely for the stunning music; but the societal meaning adds an extraordinary dimension to this American cultural expression.
Bechet provides a climbing and descending opening with rich tone and great poignancy, making a kind of mini-overture to the story. He plays with less volume than usual, the first use of dynamics in this song that has rarely been equaled for enhancing meaning and art. Everett Barksdale's guitar next offers a reflective transition, in descending steps, to the main musical lines, followed by pianist Willie "the Lion" Smith introducing the main theme with simple virtuosity of touch and tone. Now Bechet plays the theme with embellishments, starting in still restrained manner, like a lament. Then he steadily increases the intensity and passion, climbing higher and higher, taking the lament to a profound cry of the heart and then to a keening protest with that throbbing Bechet vibrato in full cry, only to climb even higher and end on a dramatic high note that is simultaneously an ultimate anguished wail and an appeal to the heavens to end this insanity. It is sublime musical art, yet also carries profound social meaning.
And then, all too quickly—in 2½ minutes—it is done. Rarely has such great musical art and human expression been accomplished in so short a time.
Reviewer: Dean Alger