Lesson 1: “Jazz is About Freedom”: Billie Holiday’s Anti-lynching Song Strange Fruit

Billie_holiday_pro_1841006c

Overview

This lesson focuses on Billie Holiday’s signature song, Strange Fruit, a protest song Lewis Allen wrote in 1938 about the ongoing and intransigent problem of lynching in the American South.

The bulk of the lesson is document-based. Working in small teams, students will analyze a variety of primary source materials related to lynching (news articles, letters written to or written by prominent Americans, pamphlets, broadsides, etc.) in order to assess the effectiveness of the anti-lynching campaign spearheaded by African-Americans. The documents themselves, which span 1893-1940, are a moving testament to the tragedy wrought by lynchings, as well as to the courage of those who left no stone unturned in trying to find remedies.

The information each team culls from the documents is then placed on a large class timeline. Each group also creates a group of “original” primary sources which are used to decorate the timeline. Using a variety of analytical strategies, the entire class assesses the strategies of anti-lynching activists.

Activity 1: Music and Your Life

Introductory discussion questions:

  • How many hours a week do you think you spend listening to music?
  • How much time do you spend making music yourself?
  • How much time do you spend hearing live music?
  • Of the recorded music you listen to, what types of machines and technology do you use to listen to it? How might this compare to how your grandparents listened to music in their youth? (No portable equipment, no CD’s etc.) What inventions of the 20th century most affected the listening public?
  • If none of these technologies were available to you, how do you think your life would be different?
  • Who are the recording artists you like and listen to the most?
  • Have any of these artists made you aware of a problem or issue in our society? If so, what problems or issues has the music brought to your attention? How does the song or music make you feel about the issue? What role do the lyrics play? What role does the music itself play?
  • Can you think of a time in history when protest music was especially important (e.g. the Vietnam War era)? What issues was the music designed to address?
  • Can you think a recording artist you know who has been considered “daring” for bringing a social issue to public attention via his or her music? What might still be a “taboo” issue today?
  • What are the names of several popular songs of the day (a joyful song, an angry song, etc.)
  • What do you know about the roots of all forms of popular music they listen to today. When do they think rock and roll began? Where did that music “come from”?

READ: Short History of the Blues

View: Episode One of JAZZ. (Play extra close attention to the part that begins approximately 22 minutes into the film with a picture of boats on the water, and ends about 36 minutes into the film.)

Ask: What about the blues do you recognize in the music you listen to today? What blues artists do you know of or listen to?

Review the events that took place during and after Reconstruction: 

Define the following terms:

1.Reconstruction

2. segregation

3. sharecropping

4. Jim Crow Laws

5. Plessy v. Ferguson

6.  poll tax, literacy tax

7. Ku Klux Klan

Guiding Questions:

1.  Why did the removal of federal troops after the election of 1877 make it easier for Southern states to deprive African-American citizens of their rights?

2.  Why did this period see a rise in the Ku Klux Klan and the lynchings of African-Americans?

3.  What made freedmen, although “free,” want to sing the blues?

Activity 2: Lynch Law and African-Americans

We are going to learn about lynching in relation to one of the most famous recordings in jazz history, Billie Holiday‘s Strange Fruit (1938).

Watch: Jazz: Episode Five, approximately 107 minutes into the film. (It begins with a discussion of Duke Ellington and a film he made.)

Watch: (Introduction to lynching) Jazz: Segment from Episode Two. (It begins approximately 31 minutes into the video with a scene of the KKK marching, and ends four minutes later with a blackout, followed by flappers dancing.)

Discuss: What does “lynching” mean?

Look up: “lynch” and “lynch law” in the dictionary.

According to Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “to lynch” means to put to death (usually by hanging) by mob action without due process of the law or legal sanction.

The term was coined in the 1830s after a vigilante, William Lynch.

Throughout American history, many types of people have been lynched, from outlaws in the American West to immigrants in American cities, but that the vast majority of lynching victims have been African-American men.

Discuss “lynch law” by addressing the following questions:

  • What might motivate a mob to lynch someone?
  • What is the relationship of lynching to scapegoating?
  • Why do you think the lynching of African-American men began primarily after the end of Reconstruction, when federal troops were withdrawn from the South?
  • What sections of the Constitution specifically guarantee that all citizens are entitled to due process of law? (Refer specifically to the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Fourteenth amendments.)
  • When, if ever, might a lynching be justified?

The Strange Story of the Man Behind “Strange Fruit”

Read:

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, between 1882 and 1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African-Americans. Lynching peaked after the end of Reconstruction when federal troops were removed from the South. In 1892, vigilantes lynched 71 whites and 155 blacks. After that the number of lynchings decreased nationwide, but increasingly, lynching became a crime of the South. By the late 1920s, 95 percent of U.S. lynchings occurred in the South.

The white mobs who lynched African-American men often justified their actions as a defense of “white womanhood;” the usual reason given for lynching black men was that they had raped white women. But early on, journalists like Ida B. Wells (1862-1931) saw through this sham and proclaimed that the lynch mobs’ real motive was the determination to keep African-American men economically depressed and politically disenfranchised. Ida B.Wells (a.k.a. Ida Wells-Barnett) headed the Anti-Lynching League and was a member of the Committee of Forty which led to the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

While the Constitution leaves law enforcement up to the states, a movement spearheaded by the NAACP sought to pass anti-lynching laws at the federal level, since Southern state governments appeared ineffective in fighting this crime. During the Great Depression, when Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, lynchings of African-Americans were again on the increase. Although a law at the federal level was consistently blocked by Southern senators, lynchings virtually disappeared by 1950. In part this can be attributed to improved economic conditions and the success of the anti-lynching campaign spearheaded by the NAACP.

Activity 3: Analyzing Documents Related to Lynching in the United States

Overview: We are going to study the history of lynching from 1893 to 1938, when Billie Holiday recorded her song. Students will place the information they gather from the documents on a class timeline along with a group of original “documents” the class creates.

Assign four or five students to create the timeline itself. It can be as simple as a string posted on a long wall with dates tacked on to it. It should begin in 1890 and end in 1940. Students should allow a minimum of one inch per year (a 50″ timeline) but aim for double that if there is room to post it. Alternatively, students might use various computer programs such as HyperStudio or Inspiration to generate a timeline or graphic organizer.

Tell students that you will divide the class into teams and that each team will be responsible for analyzing five or six documents related to lynching.

Write one index card per document for the timeline.Each index card should be headed with the title of the document and its date. It should contain a concise summary of the document’s contents and focus on the following:

If the document reports on a specific lynching it should:

Summarize the facts of the situation (who, what, when, where and why) and highlight any tragic dimensions of the case.

Include information about anyone who tried to prevent the lynching in question, and if so, report on whether or not this person was successful.

Recount whether anyone who perpetrated the lynching was brought to justice.

If the document is about lynching patterns or statistics it should:

Include a summary about the trends reported on in the article.

Give some specific numerical facts (how many lynchings, when and where) and comment on their significance.

Recount who created this analysis and for what purpose.

In addition, students should create separate cards for each date for which there is a statistic about lynchings (e.g. “In 1892 155 blacks were lynched”).

If the document represents or recounts an effort or strategy to stop lynchings it should:

Report on the strategy used.

Report on who proposed and/or implemented the strategy.

Report on how successful the strategy has been to date.

DOCUMENTS FOR ANALYSIS

TEAM I

A Terrible Blot on American Civilization” Broadside, 1922 from the Library of Congress.

Setback for Anti-Lynch Movement,” Cleveland Gazette, 1893. Accessed through the Library of Congress.

Alarm the Race in National Capitol” 1918 (lynchings during World War I) from The African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress

Tulsa Lynching Will be Sifted” 1920 from The African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress

Petition Drive for West Union Lynching 1894” from The African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress

TEAM II

A Protest Against the Burning and Lynching of Negroes” by Booker T. Washington, 1904 accessed from the Library of Congress.”

‘AutoDrag’ is the Latest Fad of South’s Lynchers” 1920 from The African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Lynching Spreading Northward” 1893 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress

Race Protests Lynching to President Wilson” 1918 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Report of the Secretary to the Anti-Lynching Committee” NAACP 1921 accessed through the Library of Congress.

Lynch Law in Georgia” by Ida B. Wells-Barnett, 1899 accessed through the Library of Congress.

TEAM III

A $5,000 Lynching” 1901 from The African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.”

Anti Lynching Law Again in Congress” Cleveland Advocate, 1920 accessed through the Library of Congress.

Stringent Against Lynching” 1903 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Another Great Victory” 1901 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Federal Law for Lynchers” 1919 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

TEAM IV

Anti-Lynch Society Forms in London, England” 1894 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Lynchings for 1922” from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Does Lynching Protect Womanhood: No Say White Lousiana Women” 1923 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

National Lynching Conference” 1919 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White“, 1936 accessed through the Library of Congress

TEAM V

A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag flying from the offices of the NAACP, New York City 1938 accessed from the Library of Congress.”

Lynch Law” 1896: A resolution introduced at the Republican National Convention from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

South Carolina Arrests White Lynchers” 1916 from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress.

Lynch Law Condemned” 1899 (news article on speech by President McKinley) from the African-American Experience in Ohio accessed through the Library of Congress

Discussion about the documents your teams reviewed:

1. What forms of protest or social action did they encounter?

2.  Of these, which do they think would have been the most effective in the fight against lynch law?

Activity 4: Creating the Time Line and Analyzing the Fight Against Lynching

When the timeline is posted reconvene the entire class.

Open and Discuss: The Fight Against Lynching Summary Sheet

Activity 5: Can a Song Be an Effective Form of Protest, and If So Why?

Discuss: Given the enormous effort made by so many segments of society to stem the tide of lynchings, what impact could a song make and why?

The Role of the Lyrics

Discuss: How does this song make you feel? Generate a list of adjectives that expresses your feelings.

Strange Fruit by Lewis Allen

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 twisted mouth,
The scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a 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.

Discuss: 

  • Why were most lynching victims hung from trees? Would they have died this way had they been convicted of a crime in a court of law?
  • What kinds of fruit do trees usually bear? Generate the cycle a fruit-bearing tree would go through in the course of a season: the tree blossoms, the fruit begins to grow, ripens, and falls to the ground as perhaps the wind blows. On the ground it might be eaten by crows, etc.
  • How do we know from the lyrics that the “strange” fruit here means the bodies of lynching victims?
  • Why is it that Southern trees bear the “strange fruit”?
  • What contrast is made between the “gallant South” and the South which bears strange fruit? What is ironic about this contrast?
  • Why do you think the word “lynching” never appears in the song?
  • Do you think the song is more powerful, or less powerful, because its topic [lynching] is implied instead of stated?
  • What is “blue” about Strange Fruit? How does the blue feeling in this song make you feel? Earlier in Episode Five a commentator said that Billie’s songs were usually blue, but still ebullient. Is there anything joyous about this song?

Assessment

Answer the questions below using materials from the lesson above and any in-class discussions.

1.  Why did the removal of federal troops after the election of 1877 make it easier for Southern states to deprive African-American citizens of their rights? Use the following terms in your response: Reconstruction, segregation, sharecropping, Jim Crow Laws, Plessy v. Ferguson, poll tax, literacy tax

2.  What are the historical roots of today’s blues? Who sang the blues and why?  What did the blues mean to these people?  In other words, what was the purpose of the blues for them–what were the blues really about for them? How and in what ways could the blues be considered protest songs?  (See Short History of the Blues and Episode 1 of Jazz starting about 20 minutes into the clip.)

3.  Why did the 1930s see a rise in the Ku Klux Klan and the lynchings of African-Americans? (See blue reading in Activity 1 above.) As you form your response think of the #2 Rule of History: Have a scapegoat.

4.  How do we know from the lyrics that the “strange” fruit here means the bodies of lynching victims? How and in what ways was Stange Fruit a protest song?  Use lyrics from the song and your understanding of lynchings to explain your answer. 

 Strange Fruit by Lewis Allen

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 twisted mouth,
The scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is a 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.

5. When lynching was recognized as a problem, what forms of protest or social action sought to end it?  Give two specific examples from Activity 2 above.

6.   Of these, which do they think would have been the most effective in the fight against lynch law?

_____________________________________________________

This lesson correlates to the National Standards for History, National Center for History in the Schools located online at http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/nchs/standards/:

  • Explain the rising racial conflict in different areas including the rise of lynching in the South
  • Analyze the arguments and methods by which various minority groups sought to acquire equal rights and opportunities guaranteed in the nation’s charter documents
  • Analyze how radio, movies, newspapers, and popular magazines created mass culture.
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