Strange Fruit

I was listening to a great Radio 4 programme the other day called Soul Music.

The series takes a piece of music and finds people (god only knows how they do the research) who can talk about why it means something significant to them.

Anyway, this was about Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holliday.

I was sitting at my kitchen table but it took me straight back to driving up the A1 on a sunny evening, watching hot air balloons fly over the crops.

There is something about some music that just takes you back to where, and it has to be where, you heard it last or it made an impression on you.

If you don’t know it, Strange Fruit is about lynching in America.

Yes, it’s shocking.

You should listen to it, great programme.

It got me fiddling around on Google and Wikipedia as you do when the risotto does not need your immediate attention…..

In 1916 in Waco – a city then thought to be progressive but since well known for anything but progressiveness – a young black man called Jessie Washington pleaded guilty to the rape of a white woman.

He was quickly sentenced to death in a courtroom full of furious locals.

He was straight away dragged from the courtroom and lynched in front of the town hall.

10,000 people watched including local officials, police, children and people on their lunch-break.

A professional photographer was there and it was his images which helped change views on lynching.

See the images

Some five years later in 1921 Leonadis C Dyer from St Louis sponsored an anti-lynching bill which was passed by the House of Representatives, but a Senate filibuster by white Democrats blocked it and defeated it.

As they did for several years to come.

Meanwhile there were many lynchings of young black men.

In 1964, three Mississippi civil rights workers were abducted and lynched.

But the murder, including hanging from a tree, by two Klu Klux Klan members, of Michael Donald is though to be the last recorded lynching.

It was in 1981.

God knows we Brits have a lot to answer for but at least we don’t claim we are the Land of the Free.

This all got me thinking about one of the best books I have ever read.

It is called Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene.

It is about a civil rights ‘campaign’ (and I put that in quotation marks because it was a local action rather than a big campaign.)

Here is the blurb from the back of the book,

‘Set in the Deep South of the 1970s, this superb book tells the true story of the political awakening of a tiny black community. Here the people of McIntosh County, Georgia tell of their own experiences – stories that are outrageous, funny, eloquent and touching – in a historic struggle for civil equality.’

I remember reading it for the first time, years ago, and having to remind myself that this was in the 70s.

Not in the 20s or 30s or even 40s – but in the 70s when I was listening to Rod Stewart.

( Of course, I had leant my copy – and several later-bought copies – and couldn’t find one so I had to buy it again…)

I think it is now out of print but you can get it via and I urge you to read it.

It is brilliant and moving.


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