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Protest and the Strange Fruit of Mistaken Identity

January 9, 2010

Those of us who latch onto TV for the lack of anything better to do must have seen the juicy footage that some channels circulated yesterday: a Tamil Nadu policeman having his thigh blown apart by a country bomb and then hacked to death with sickles by a mob of contract killers. All went well for the killers except that it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

The cop was part of a motorcade escorting two Tamil Nadu ministers. His attackers were in fact targeting his colleague. The latter happened to be away on leave without their knowledge and the killers got the wrong man.

The politicians’ retinue contained a number of mediapersons and the incident — flush with blood and gore, a writhing policeman and ministers standing about scratching their nuts — provided live action and TRP-boosters to the TV crew. Too much to pass up. The cameras scarcely blinked. But everyone present did.

I do not watch TV but I do surf news online. And when I read anything particularly depressing that is badly written to boot (which is nearly always), I keep some music playing in the background. Just to soothe my fraying 35-plus nerves. And when I found myself hanging about the TIMES NOW website, I was careful to have aural salve ready in the form of NPR’s media player lined up with a long playlist containing, among other things, the weekly jazz show Take Five.

‘Strange Fruit – Evolution of a Song’ features five artists’ interpretations of Strange Fruit, schoolteacher Abel Meeropol’s anguished reaction to the lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith, in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Meeropol saw the famous photograph of the bodies hanging from a tree (taken by Lawrence Beitler) and published the poem Bitter Fruit in 1936 (under the name Lewis Allan). Along with his wife and a black vocalist, Meeropol performed the song at a protest rally. It was introduced eventually to Billie Holiday who first performed it in 1939 and elevated it to lasting fame. In 2002, filmmaker Joel Katz made an award-winning documentary of the same title inspired by the song. Interestingly, the comments on the NPR page include one each from Katz and Meeropol’s elder son Michael.

Back to NPR’s Take Five. I happened to be streaming Nina Simone’s haunting rendition of the song when the news video, which had been buffering, came alive. Both audio tracks played side by side and I was struck by the eerie similarity of their themes — it had a sort of roughhewn, impromptu resemblance to Simon & Garfunkel’s Silent Night-7 O’clock News.

Here’s a rough scratch recording of that moment:

The age of original heartfelt protest songs in jazz, pop or rock has passed unlamented ever since we started counting Madonna, MJ, Eminem, the Black-Eyed Peas and Amy Winehouse among protest singers. Insidiously, Protest has become a marketing label, a genre if you like — which adds up to a nice new varnished shelf in a large music store somewhere before Punk and after Gospel. Most artists have realized that they have little to protest about but their own inconspicuousness. And their acts of protest are in truth about having a go at the fifteen lucre-encrusted minutes of fame that their voices, if sufficiently loud, would bring them.

Will anybody write a protest song about what happened in Tamil Nadu? We can’t be sure. Most likely that someone is right now watching the news to dream up a new potboiler screenplay.

Here is Strange Fruit, for us to unforget what protest means.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 10, 2010 12:15 pm

    Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

    phew!

    Protest bands- barring Greenday and U2, I don’t know any other in the last decade.

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