02 May 2010

Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, by David Margolick

I think I'm kind of a snob when it comes to books written by journalists. I generally expect that they're gonna be packed full of interesting information, but probably not all that well written. There are exceptions, of course, but the thing is - most nonfiction isn't really amazing, stylistically. This book does nothing to change this bias of mine. Though it is a case where you kind of wonder why he wanted to make it a book in the first place - he really doesn't seem to have a book's-worth amount of things to say. There's a lot of repetition, and a lot of testimonials from people that basically amount to them saying they really love the song, which by the end, seem increasingly unnecessary.

It's also a bit misleading to call it the biography of a song, because it's really much more about Billie Holiday's version of it. While it does tell you the truth about who actually wrote it, and mentions other versions of it here and there, it really spends all its time talking about Billie Holiday. The book is clearly a little uneasy in terms of how it handles discussions of The Lady, which is fair, because she's a problematic figure. The central "controversy" of the book, one could say, is the question of whether or not Holiday actually understood what she was singing. Apparently there were claims that she didn't. The author seems to say that it's pretty unlikely that she didn't, and leaves it at that. The fact that Holiday lied about the song's origins, and claimed it was written for her, etc, the book clearly refutes, but also cites the true author of the song saying that he understands why she said that, and he doesn't want anyone to focus on her doing so, etc.

Reading it, the thing I was thinking about is this whole power of words versus power of music versus power of a voice issue. To me, just reading the words, I get the chills. As poetry, it's just devastatingly intense. Musically, I don't think it's that amazing a song - I think the music subtly sets off the words, it's a melody that seems pretty simple with a slight jazziness to it. Basically, it's nice, but I don't think the song without the words would be all that momentous. But the argument of the people who love the song is that Billie Holiday sings it in a way that no one else can. That she has this particular vocal genius, where her voice expresses something in the song that the words alone can't.
I guess I have a slightly harder time with this part. In that people tend to speak of it as if it were a fact: "X can convey sadness in their voice in a certain way". And honestly, sometimes I just... don't hear it. I'm not saying this is true of Billie Holiday or her version of this song necessarily, I just mean in general.

One might also add in relation to this, the power of photographs. The book has a photo section in the middle. It's mostly pictures of Billie Holiday. Makes sense. Suddenly, you turn the page, and it's pictures of lynchings. Which freaked me out bigtime, and I still can't get those images out of my head. They're horrific.

Point being, that's kind of an interesting thing to consider, the power of various mediums. And added to that - the power of those mediums for political change.

One thing that's distinctly lacking in the book is a better idea of the context. I mean, there are really good descriptions of the actual performances of the song, which is nice, but it'd be nice to know more about the historical moment. For instance, just how common lynchings were, and how that changed over time. The author gives a few numbers, but you don't really get a good sense of it. And that's really missing.

Overall, meh, it's an ok book. It could easily have been a magazine article though.

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