Strange Fruit : Throughline Billie Holiday helped shape American popular music with her voice and unique style. But, her legacy extends way beyond music with one song in particular — "Strange Fruit." The song paints an unflinching picture of racial violence, and it was an unexpected hit. But singing it brought serious consequences.

In a special collaboration with NPR Music's Turning the Tables Series, how "Strange Fruit" turned Billie Holiday into one of the first victims of the War on Drugs.

Strange Fruit

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JOHANN HARI: In 1939, the great jazz singer Billie Holiday walked onto a stage. She stands on this stage, and she sang for the first time a song called "Strange Fruit."


BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit.

HARI: And years later, Billie Holiday received a warning from agents at the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. And the warning said effectively, stop singing this song.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.


Hey, I'm Rund Abdelfatah.


I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, a special collaboration with NPR Music's Turning the Tables series, how Billie Holiday sang the song "Strange Fruit" and became one of the first victims of the war on drugs.


ARABLOUEI: So why was Billie Holiday on that stage, and why was the government so interested in her? To answer those questions, we need to go back to the beginning of her story.

FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia, but she grew up in Baltimore, Md. She came from a kind of working-class, working, poor background.

ARABLOUEI: This is Farah Jasmine Griffin.

GRIFFIN: I am the chair of the African American and African Diaspora Studies Department at Columbia University.

ABDELFATAH: And author of "If You Can't Be Free, Be A Mystery: In Search Of Billie Holiday."


ABDELFATAH: Billie's dad was a jazz musician but wasn't in her life much. Her mom worked around the clock and wasn't a fan of jazz.

HARI: Her mother wouldn't let her listen to jazz. She thought it was the devil's music.

ABDELFATAH: But this was the early 1920s, the era of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith. And jazz was everywhere.


HARI: So Billie Holiday would go to the local brothel, where the woman who ran it would play jazz records for her. She would sit on the floor as a little girl, and she'd listen to this jazz.


HARI: My name is Johann Hari, and I'm the author of The New York Times best-selling book "Chasing The Scream: The First And Last Days Of The War On Drugs."


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Sun go down...

ARABLOUEI: Billie spent a lot of time on her own. And when she was 10 years old...

HARI: A man came up to her, and he said, oh, your mom sent for me. He was a 40-year-old guy. He said, your mom sent for me. You've got to come with me. So she went with him, and he violently raped her.


ARABLOUEI: He was sent to prison for a short time. As for Billie...

HARI: She was given a much more severe punishment. She was accused of being a prostitute, as if that's something a 10-year-old child can be.

ARABLOUEI: She was then taken to a Catholic reform school to live.

HARI: Because they said she was rebellious, where the nuns decided to teach her a lesson. They'd said she was out of control. It was her fault this had happened. Amongst the things they did was lock her in with the dead bodies overnight to scare her. And Billie Holiday wasn't having any of this.


ABDELFATAH: When she was about 11 years old, Billie left the reform school and went to live with her mom in New York.

HARI: And she ends up working in this brothel alongside her mother from when she was 14, which means - what that actually means is Billie Holiday is being raped for money by monstrous individuals day after day after day after day.

ABDELFATAH: This was when Billie's lifelong struggle with addiction began.

HARI: She was in horrendous pain. And in that context, she starts trying to anesthetize herself with huge amounts of alcohol.

ARABLOUEI: Eventually, that brothel was raided by the police. Billie was arrested on charges of prostitution. And in that moment, she decided...

GRIFFIN: She decided that she wasn't going to be in those kinds of situations anymore. So she began singing in after-hours spots in Harlem. She wasn't really the star. She was kind of the girl singer for the bands who were the stars, the - particularly the band leaders.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Ms. Holiday, would you care to tell us about some of the record sessions you were in? That one back there, for instance, that was made here in New York, I suppose.

HOLIDAY: Yes, it was. Well, the first record I ever made, it was with Benny Goodman. I was...


GRIFFIN: But she got a break when she was - when Barney Josephson, who owned Cafe Society, had her come and sing there.


BARNEY JOSEPHSON: He said to me, what kind of club are you going to open? I said, well, I'm going to open an interracial nightclub where all people are welcome, all will be greeted as they should be.

ARABLOUEI: This is Barney Josephson recounting a conversation he had with a music producer.


JOSEPHSON: And all of my entertainers and entertainment and musicians will be hired for talent, and not for color. We're going to integrate them as much as we can. And the Negro public will be invited as guests, the same as the other people.

And then he said, I have a singer for you. And I said, who is she? And he said, Billie Holiday. I'd never heard of Billie Holiday.

ABDELFATAH: At this point, no one really knew who she was. Billie would sing in obscure Harlem nightclubs. She wasn't technically trained, couldn't even read music, but she was really good. And people started paying attention to her. When she was 18, she put out her first record as part of a group led by Benny Goodman, the King of Swing. She later became a regular headliner at Barney's club, Cafe Society, and earned the nickname Lady Day. Billie Holiday was a rising star.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: You have a most unusual style. Everybody says that. How did you develop it? Did it just come out of the thin blue?

HOLIDAY: Well, I always wanted to sing like Louis Armstrong played. I always wanted to sing like an instrument, you know, like any instrument, you know?


ARABLOUEI: In the late 1930s, a new song was brought to Billie Holiday at Cafe Society.

GRIFFIN: It was written by a man named Abel Meeropol, whose pen name was Lewis Allan.


JOSEPHSON: He sings this song to her. And she looked at me and said - after he finished it - and said, what do you want me to do with that, man? And I said it'd be wonderful if you would sing it if you cared to. You don't have to. She said, he wants me to sing it? I'll sing it. And she sang it.


JOSEPHSON: And that song was "Strange Fruit."


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange...

GRIFFIN: And Billie Holiday sang it in that way, that very slow tempo way, that off-the-beat way. She had exquisite diction that it was hard not to be moved by it. The poem, because it is a poem, is full of imagery...


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Black bodies swinging...

GRIFFIN: ...Kind of sensual imagery.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) ...In the southern breeze.

GRIFFIN: This metaphor of...


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

GRIFFIN: ...Black bodies as the fruit on the lynching tree. And that the corruption, the violence isn't only at the fruit. It's at the root of the tree, that the tree itself is imbued with this history of racial trauma and racial violence.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Scent of magnolia...

GRIFFIN: You know, calling on our sense of smell, scent of magnolia, smooth and sweet, right?


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

GRIFFIN: You have that magnolia blending with the smell of burning flesh, which talks about the kind of barbaric ritual of lynching. It's a very explicit, difficult song but, you know, also presented in in the figured of language of poetry.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) The wind to suck...

ARABLOUEI: "Strange Fruit" is, at its core, a protest song - graphic and unflinching in its imagery, in its rejection of white supremacy and violence against African Americans.

GRIFFIN: And she decided that she wanted to record it. And her record label would not. They didn't think that it was going to be a commercial hit. So she took it to a small, independent label and recorded it.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) Here's a strange...

ABDELFATAH: When we come back, "Strange Fruit" is released. And Billie Holiday makes an enemy in the government.


HOLIDAY: (Singing) ...Crop.

MJ: Hey, this is MJ from Vancouver. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR.

ABDELFATAH: In 1939, "Strange Fruit" was released. And it became an instant hit. But pretty quickly, it began to attract negative attention. Billie Holiday got a lot of pushback from club owners who would tell her not to sing it.

HARI: You've got to understand how shocking this song was at the time. Her goddaughter Lorraine Feather said that to me. You know, this was not a time when there were political pop songs. You know, the top song at the time is called "P.S. I Love You." And to have an African American woman standing in front of a white audience singing a song against white supremacy and its violence was viscerally shocking at that moment.


ABDELFATAH: And it's around this time that Billie Holiday became the focus of government attention.

GRIFFIN: She'd been so harassed by narcotics agents, you know, I mean, just in inhumane and absurd ways.

ARABLOUEI: Over the years, Billie struggled with alcohol and drug addiction. And federal agents used that as an excuse to target her. One FBI memo quotes a source in the Federal Bureau of Narcotics saying because of the importance of Holiday, it has been the policy of this bureau to discredit individuals of this caliber using narcotics.

GRIFFIN: They would threaten her that if she sang the song, you know, that they would arrest her or harass her.

ARABLOUEI: There was one agent in particular who was hell-bent on getting her to stop singing the song. His name - Harry Anslinger.

HARI: I think Harry Anslinger is the most influential person who no one's ever heard of. He invented the modern war on drugs. And we live in the world Harry Anslinger made, not just in the United States but across the world.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come behind the scene at Washington, D.C., and meet the chief of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Mr. Harry J. Anslinger.

HARI: So Harry Anslinger was a government bureaucrat who took over the Department of Prohibition just as alcohol prohibition was ending. So you've had this big war on alcohol. He was a key part of fighting it in the Bahamas, intercepting alcohol smugglers, where he said they should use maximum force and violence. And they've lost the war on alcohol.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The decisive vote of the 36th state against prohibition is happy news for the grain-raisers of the United States....

FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT: And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal.


HARI: So he's got this government department that's part of the Treasury Department that's basically going to have nothing to do quite soon, and he wants to keep his department going. And he invented the modern war on drugs as the pretext for his department.


HARRY ANSLINGER: The Treasury Department intends to pursue a relentless warfare against the despicable dope-pedaling vulture who preys on the weakness of his fellow man.


HARI: And he built it around two really strong hatreds he had. One was a really strong hatred of people with addiction problems. As a young man on the farm he lived on in Altoona in Pennsylvania, he'd lived next door to a farmer's wife who had a morphine addiction. He'd been really traumatized by seeing her addicted. He'd resolved to kind of crush people like her. And the other group he really hated were African Americans and Latinos. I mean, he was so racist that he was regarded as a crazy racist in the 1920s. His own senator from Pennsylvania said he should have to resign because he used the N-word so often in official police memos.

And to him, Billie Holiday was the incarnation of everything he hated. She is an African American woman standing up to white supremacy in a stunningly brave way, and Billie Holiday had an addiction problem. She'd been monstrously raped for money as a child, more times than we know how to count. And to deal with the pain and the grief of that, she was using a huge amount of alcohol and a huge amount of heroin.

ABDELFATAH: One night when Billie was slated to sing "Strange Fruit," she received a warning from Anslinger.

HARI: And the warning said, effectively, stop singing this song.

ABDELFATAH: She arrived at the club, got onstage and sang.

HARI: Billie Holiday's response, typical of her life, was effectively, screw you. I'm an American citizen; I'll sing what I damn well please. And at that point, Harry Anslinger resolves to destroy her.


ARABLOUEI: But Billie Holiday refused to back down. In fact, "Strange Fruit" became her signature song.

GRIFFIN: It would be the last song of her set. She would demand silence. She wouldn't sing it if it wasn't silent. There'd be, like, this kind of pinpoint light on that beautiful face. She understood the import of the song and had become identified with it.

ARABLOUEI: And as Billie continued to sing "Strange Fruit," Anslinger devised a plan to take her down.

HARI: The first person who Anslinger sent to stalk Billie Holiday, to gather information so that they could bust and arrest her was an agent called Jimmy Fletcher. Harry Anslinger hated employing African Americans, but you couldn't really send a white guy into Harlem to stalk Billie Holiday. It'd be kind of obvious. So he employed a guy called Jimmy Fletcher, who was known as a bagman.

So Jimmy Fletcher's brief was - follow Billie Holiday everywhere she goes; befriend her; document her drug use, and get it ready for an indictment. So for more than a year, Jimmy Fletcher follows Billie Holiday everywhere. He gets to know her. He dances with her in Harlem nightclubs. He gets to play with her little dog. They get on really well. And Jimmy Fletcher was someone who had no sympathy for people with addiction problems. He said they'd brought it on themselves, they deserved to be punished, they deserved to be broken. But Billie Holiday was so amazing that Jimmy Fletcher fell in love with her.

ABDELFATAH: Despite those feelings, he did where he was sent to do.

HARI: So he goes to bust her. She locks herself in the bathroom. He tells her to pass the drugs under the door. She says, no, you come and inspect me. She makes him inspect her. She wants him to see what he's doing to her. She's arrested. She's put on trial. The trial was called the United States v. Billie Holiday, and she said that's how it felt.

ABDELFATAH: Billie was sentenced to a year in prison.

HARI: She doesn't sing a word in prison. She's really haunted by what Jimmy Fletcher did to her - even years later. And his whole life, he felt really guilty about what he did.

ARABLOUEI: But Harry Anslinger was just getting started. When we come back, the war against Billie Holiday intensifies.


WILL: This is Will, and I'm from Addison, Texas. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: When Billie Holiday got out of prison, Harry Anslinger made sure she wouldn't be able to sing anywhere.

HARI: At that time, to perform anywhere where alcohol was served in most cities, you needed something called a cabaret performance license, and they made sure that Billie Holiday was denied a cabaret performance license. They take away singing from Billie Holiday.

ARABLOUEI: On top of that, Anslinger sent another agent to stalk her.

HARI: His name is Colonel George White, and he really is sent to be the kind of harder fist after Jimmy Fletcher had gone soft. So he tracks all around the country. He goes to hear her sing and perform in San Francisco. It's one of the few places where she was able to do it. He said he wasn't impressed.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, Billie was trying to get sober. She would go months at a time without using drugs or alcohol, which didn't exactly help Anslinger's campaign against her. So one night...

HARI: They bust her, and it's pretty clear, I think, from reading the historical documents, that he planted drugs on Billie Holiday that night. White has her busted. She's broken and destroyed again. She's really back on the path of addiction.

ABDELFATAH: For the next few years, Billie was stuck in the cycle of addiction and remission, and her career began to decline. By the mid-1950s, she'd been arrested many times on drug charges. Still, she continued to sing "Strange Fruit."

HARI: You know, no matter what they did to her - Anslinger and his agents - Billie Holiday never stopped singing "Strange Fruit." She would always find somewhere to do it. She would go to the worst parts of the Deep South where they threw bottles at the stage, and she sang her song.

GRIFFIN: The kind of courage not only that she would risk her career and her career mobility but that she actually risked her life and her freedom because she felt that she had to sing this song...

ARABLOUEI: In 1959, after years of battling addiction and harassment from agents...

HARI: She collapsed. The first hospital she was taken to refused to take her 'cause she had an addiction problem. They took her to another hospital, and this one did allow her in, but she said to her friend Maely Dufty on the way in that Anslinger wasn't finished with her. She said, they're going to kill me in there; don't let them. She wasn't wrong.

ARABLOUEI: Billie was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with liver disease.

HARI: So she's very ill, and she goes into heroin withdrawal because she's not given any in the hospital. And Maely Dufty, her friend, managed to insist that she was given methadone, and she began to recover. Obviously, heroin withdrawal is very dangerous if you're extremely physically weak, as she was. Anslinger's men come into the hospital and arrest her on her hospital bed.


ALICE VRBSKY: I really think that the arrest took a lot out of her.

ABDELFATAH: Billie's friend Alice Vrbsky remembers that moment.


VRBSKY: It sort of was like the last straw that the public or the system could do to her, and I think that that really took the heart out of her.

HARI: She's obviously profoundly distressed by this. I actually interviewed the last surviving person who'd been in that room, a wonderful man named Reverend Eugene Callender who'd set up the first kind of - we'd call it, really, a rehab center now for jazz musicians in Harlem. He'd known a lot of jazz musicians, and he saw what they were doing to her, right? He saw that this was risking - killing her. He actually led a protest outside the hospital with signs saying, let Lady Day live. Lots of people joined him. They could see what they were doing. After 10 days, as part of Anslinger's policy, the methadone was cut off.


VRBSKY: She was in very bad shape. I could see on her face and in her whole condition that she wasn't well, and she could see it on my face. And she said, don't look at me that way. I'm not any better. And I said, goodnight. And I said, I'll see you tomorrow. And I went - came home, and the phone rang some time early that next morning. And it was Earl, and he said, Lady's gone.

HARI: One of her friends told the BBC that she looked like she had been violently wrenched from life. And when the Reverend Eugene Callender delivers her eulogy in Harlem, they had to actually have police around the church 'cause they believed that people would riot 'cause they were so angry 'cause they could see that Billie Holiday had been killed. Reverend Callender said, you know, we shouldn't be here. This is a person who should have lived to be 80 years old. This is a person who had an incredible contribution to make.

And Harry Anslinger was very proud of what he did. He wrote after her death, for her, there would be no more good morning heartache. A member of the public wrote him a poem that he kept in a special place. It said, until the last judge proclaims that the last addict has died, then - not till then - may you be retired.

ARABLOUEI: A couple of years after Billie Holiday's death, Anslinger went on to receive an honor from President John F. Kennedy for his years of service.


JOHN KENNEDY: To Harry Jacob Anslinger, distinguished citizen. In your dedicated efforts to combat the illegal traffic in narcotic drugs, you have fashioned an effective organization to pursue this objective. Your noteworthy achievements in this field have earned for you the respect of the world community. Signed, John F. Kennedy.

HARI: So we see in this story what the drug war was about at the start, right? It was about profound racism.


JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high...

HARI: At the same time that Harry Anslinger discovered that Billie Holiday had an addiction problem, he found out that Judy Garland, Dorothy from "The Wizard Of Oz," also had an addiction problem. By the way, that really changes how you watch "The Wizard Of Oz" once you know that. So we know what he did to Billie Holiday. He stalks and effectively kills her. What did he do to Judy Garland? He goes to visit her. He advises her to take slightly longer vacations. What's the difference, right? We see the difference.

Years later, Harry Anslinger finds out that a man he really admired, Senator Joseph McCarthy, had an addiction to opiates. What does he do with Senator Joseph McCarthy? Does he break him and destroy him like he did with Billie Holiday? No. He arranges for a pharmacy in Washington, D.C., to discreetly give him a legal version of the drug.

ARABLOUEI: And Johann Hari says that racial bias continues to frame the war on drugs to this day.

HARI: African Americans and Latinos are no more likely to sell or use drugs than other ethnic groups. They make up the vast majority of the people who go to prison for them. We also see what the war on drugs has always done to people with addiction problems, right? It makes their addictions worse. It makes them more likely to die.

ARABLOUEI: Johann says we should rethink our whole approach to addiction to have more empathy - something embodied in the story of Billie Holiday and "Strange Fruit."

HARI: And the thing I think of when I think of Billie Holiday singing that song is the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square. You know, there is this force rolling over her, and she stands, and she sings. And not just a story about race - right? - although clearly, it is predominantly a story about race - also a story about addiction.

You know, shortly before she died, Billie Holiday said - this is a quote from her - imagine if the government chased sick people with diabetes, drove insulin into the black market and told doctors they couldn't treat them, then sent them to jail. If we did that, everyone would know we were crazy, yet we do practically the same thing every day to sick people hooked on drugs.

And all over the world today, in - with a few honorable exceptions, like Portugal and Switzerland, we still follow the drug war script that was written by Harry Anslinger. And every day, Billie Holiday makes people stronger, and Harry Anslinger makes people weaker. And in a way, the struggle that this story tells is still ongoing.

ABDELFATAH: And Farah Griffin says the legacy of Billie Holiday extends way beyond her addiction.

GRIFFIN: When Colin Kaepernick takes the knee and continues to do it - right? - he transcends football. And I think that's what she does, and I think that's why she's important. And we're at the point now where we applaud anything. Like, oh, such and such person took a stance. You know, they take a stance, and it's not necessarily - they aren't going to get the hit that Billie Holiday got. They aren't going to go to prison because they sang a song, right? So I think it's important to remember that she did that when the cost and the consequences were much, much harsher.

HARI: Billie Holiday had a friend called Yolande Bavan who was a very young jazz singer. She called Yolande her daughter. And I said to Yolande when I interviewed her for the book, what would you say to Billie Holiday if you could speak to her now? And she told me how Billie Holiday, right at the end, thought that Anslinger had destroyed her, that no one would remember her. And she said, I'd say to her, Billie, this morning, I went into Whole Foods in Columbus Circle and they were playing your songs. Nobody forgot you, baby.


WARPAINT: (Singing) B-I-L-L-I-E H-O-L-I-D-A-Y, B-I-L-L-I-E H-O-L-I-D-A-Y, B-I-L-L-I-E H-O-L-I-D-A-Y...

ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei, and you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.

ARABLOUEI: And me and...





N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK. Smizing and somber - N'jeri Eaton.

ABDELFATAH: Jane Gilvin fact-checked this episode.

ARABLOUEI: And a special thanks to Jason Fuller and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: And thank you to the amazing band Warpaint for letting us use their song "Billie Holiday."

ABDELFATAH: If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR.

ARABLOUEI: And if you want to hear more about Billie Holiday or other amazing women musicians from American history, check out the Turning The Tables series from NPR Music by going to

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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