The inspiration for "Strange Fruit" reportedly came to Jewish poet Abel Meeropol in 1937, after he saw a photograph of two Black men lynched before a grinning white crowd. The song still resonates today, eight decades after Billie Holiday made her famous recording.
Bettye LaVette's version was already slated to appear on her 2020 album Blackbirds, but the rhythm and blues artist released it early to condemn the rampant violence that continues to be aimed at Black people living in this country. Her blues-tinged lament is evocative of Al Green's "Simply Beautiful," close-miked against a slow and steady rhythm guitar. But unlike Green's trembling performance, LaVette's phrasing never once wavers, for this is a song that naturally commands the undivided attention of both its performer and the listener.
There's a de facto onus on every artist who records "Strange Fruit" to draw out the stark repugnance of its subject. LaVette finds added resilience for the task at hand, standing firmly on the shoulders of her roots and blues predecessors, some of our earliest known activists.