Billie Holiday doesn’t start singing until one minute and nine seconds in. The song opens with a haunting muted trumpet played by Frankie Newton, followed by an ambling piano line by Sonny White that thickens the air and drops you into the American South. Then, in her unmistakable style, Holiday begins to sing:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The lyrics were written by the communist poet Abel Meeropol after seeing the infamous photograph of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith being lynched in Indiana in 1930, and Holiday recorded the song in 1939.
The jazz musician and writer Leonard Feather called it “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism”. Whether or not it was the first is disputed, but it was certainly not the last time that the suffering, pain and demand for civil rights was put to music.
By the 1960s soul music was the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement, and inseparable from the struggle for equality. Along the way, some of the greatest records of the century came into being. Amongst the many soul artists that turned pain into music there are a few that stand out.
A Change Is Gonna Come: Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi in 1931. The son of a preacher, Cooke’s family soon moved to Chicago where he became a professional gospel singer while still a child. He began releasing pop records under the alias Dale Cook before finding success under his own name in the second half of the 1950s.
Like all Black artists at the time, he saw the horrors of segregation when touring the South. Refused service at hotels and restaurants, he was forced to make sandwiches in the car and wash in rest-stop bathrooms.
In 1961, Cooke refused to play to a segregated audience at Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, a stand similarly made in March that year by Ray Charles in Augusta, Georgia. Then in 1963, he heard Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a song that reportedly had in important effect on his decision to make more openly political music.
The catalyst for writing his most famous song came on 8 October 1962, when he was turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana. When he refused to leave, he was arrested and in a dream the words to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ came to him.
It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die
'Cause I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
With its lush string arrangement and powerful lyrics that mixed foreboding with hope, the song became the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Later in 1968 when Rosa Parks heard of the death of Martin Luther King, she described the song as like “medicine to the soul”.
In the years that followed, Cooke became an increasingly prominent figure in the movement, famously becoming friends with Malcolm X and appearing ringside alongside Cassius Clay for his 1964 fight with Sonny Liston.
Sadly, Cooke was shot dead the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles in 1964, aged just 33.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin
If Holiday gave voice to the experience of racist violence and Cooke sang of imminent change, Aretha Franklin demanded respect.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942, Aretha Franklin conquered the world with her booming and soulful vocals on timeless records like ‘Think’, ‘I say a Little Prayer’ and ‘A Natural Woman’. However, in 1967 she travelled to New York to record a cover version of Otis Redding’s 1965 song ‘Respect’.
Find out what it means to me
Take care, TCB (taking care of business)
While ostensibly a song about demanding respect from her partner, it soon became a feminist and civil rights classic. In her memoir From These Roots Aretha explained how: “It [reflected] the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher—everyone wanted respect,” she explained. “It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”
Importantly the backing band on the record was the famous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, an all-white studio band from Alabama, making the record an audible example of successful integration and defiance against continuing racial segregation.
Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud
As much as soul music soundtracked the civil rights struggle, it also reflected it and by the end of the decade, the Black Power Movement was in full swing. If soul music at the start of the decade had provided a balm for open wounds, it took on a more confident and confrontational edge by then end of the decade.
In 1968, James Brown released the funk classic ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’.
Some people say we got a lot of malice, some say it's a lotta nerve
But I say we won't quit movin' until we get what we deserve
We've been buked and we've been scorned
We've been treated bad, talked about as sure as you're born
But just as sure as it take two eyes to make a pair, huh!
Brother we can't quit until we get our share
Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud
The Godfather of Soul wasn’t asking for change, he was demanding it, and contributed to the ongoing process of African Americans re-defining themselves. The open and angry demands articulated by Brown became an increasing staple of Black American music over the next decade.
In 1970, for example, the pioneers of hip-hop The Last Poets combined politically charged lyrics with African-inspired instrumentations typified by their record ‘Wake Up, Niggers’. The group would go on to be sampled by hip-hop royalty such as NWA, A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy.
The struggle for civil rights took many forms and many sacrifices, and soul music was just one small part of that struggle. However, music is a universal language. It can give people hope when they have none, it can heal wounds and force people to their feet when they don’t think they have the energy to stand. Soul music was the soundtrack to change but, for many, it was also the fuel that drove it.