The banned music that led to the tragic death of Billie Holiday
The film “United States vs. Billie Holiday” focuses on that story – it hits theaters this Thursday.
Andra Day plays Billie Holiday in the film.
Starting this Thursday, May 20th, there’s a double dose of Billie Holiday in Portuguese cinemas. One of the productions is the film “United States vs. Billie Holiday”, a biographical film by Lee Daniels about the American singer and her tragic story in connection with government institutions. The other is the documentary “Billie” directed by James Erskine.
Singer Andra Day plays the protagonist in the first film. Her performance earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress, which was just her first serious assignment to play a character.
“Strange Fruit” is the banned song that popularized Billie Holiday in the late 1930s. It was written as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish communist professor from the Bronx, and contains a text that speaks of lynch blacks in the southern United States. In 1930 Meeropol came across a photo of two black men who were lynched in the state of Indiana.
The picture plagued him for days and prompted him to write the poem. After releasing it, he decided to adapt it to a song and passed it on to a nightclub manager he knew, who introduced the subject to Billie Holiday.
When the singer read the lyrics, she was very moved – not only because she was African American herself, but also because her father had died a few years earlier at the age of 39 after he was denied hospital because he was black. He suffered from a lung problem which, without medical attention, proved fatal.
Over the years, Billie Holiday has always stated that she doesn’t really enjoy playing the song, but that she thinks it is necessary. And it became one of his most famous interpretations. “Remember how my father died,” he wrote in his autobiography “Lady Sings the Blues”. “But I have to keep singing it, not just because people ask about it, but because 20 years after my father died in the south, what killed him continues to happen [dos EUA]. ”
“Strange Fruit” has become an anthem for civil rights activists and for African Americans in general. There were different types of reactions at the nightclub circuit, which was mostly owned by white men. There were standing ovations in the audience, but there were also members of the audience who left the room when the subject began to sing.
One man in particular, Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a parent of the current DEA), was determined to stop Billie Holiday and this particular song. Anslinger believed that the drugs used by many jazz, blues, and soul musicians led them to create such “music of the devil” while becoming too impractical for American society.
Although Billie Holiday was banned from singing “Strange Fruit”, the singer continued to interpret the theme in her concerts. This led Harry to set a trap for Anslinger. Knowing that Holiday was using heroin, he used undercover agents to pose as a drug dealer and catch the singer buying drugs.
The plan worked and Billie Holiday spent a year and a half in prison after an intense trial portrayed in the film. When the singer left in 1948, federal authorities refused to give her the license she previously had to play in clubs. And so the career of Billie Holiday ended on this bohemian racetrack.
Without ever giving up, Billie Holiday continued to sing and turned to the big venues like the mythical Carnegie Hall in New York, which she sold out several times. “Strange Fruit” continued to be sung. The problems of her life – and the traumas of the past and childhood since working in a brothel with her prostitute mother – continued to torment her and she was back on heroin regularly.
In 1959, more than a decade after leaving prison, Billie Holiday was admitted to a hospital in New York. He has had multiple heart and lung problems, suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, and liver failure from alcohol and drug abuse over the years. His voice wasn’t the same anymore.
Still determined to ruin the singer’s life, Harry Anslinger sent his men to arrest her in the hospital for drug possession, with Billie Holiday handcuffed to her bed.
Although Holiday has shown some signs of recovery, Aisslinger reportedly forbade doctors from treating her further. A few days later, Billie Holiday died. He was only 44 years old. Most of her records were no longer for sale and the singer had less than a dollar in her bank account.
In the course of time “Strange Fruit” achieved the legendary song status that was celebrated in the following decades. In 1999 Time magazine named it “the song of the century”. Billie Holiday has also become a global music icon.
Harry Anslinger is considered the forerunner of the famous “War on Drugs” that would later take place, and lived nearly two more decades after Billie Holiday’s death. He died in 1975 at the age of 83 after receiving praise from American institutions and authorities.