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Bettye LaVette Revisits 'Strange Fruit' In Wake Of George Floyd's Killing

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.

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Shannon J. Effinger
Shannon J. Effinger has been a freelance arts journalist for more than a decade. Her writing on all things jazz and music regularly appears in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Jazziz, Jazzwise, and Downbeat. As of the fall of 2020, her arts coverage can also be found in The New York Times and The Washington Post; the latter features her Sunday arts cover story on Marshall Allen, the longtime leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra.