Sur­vey of favourite songs bears strange fruit in­deed

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - Brian Boyd on mu­sic

Through the use of pie charts and a power point vis­ual dis­play, it can be em­pir­i­cally proven – be­yond all rea­son­able doubt – that God Only Knows is the best love song ever writ­ten. It can be fur­ther ad­duced that the mo­tor­bike-rid­ing pro­tag­o­nist in Spring­steen’s Born to Run suc­ceeded in pre­sent­ing a per­sua­sive case. And there ex­ists ir­refutable ev­i­dence that Bil­lie Hol­i­day’s Strange Fruit is one of the most emo­tion­ally res­o­nant three min­utes of pop­u­lar mu­sic you’re ever likely to hear.

All the above fea­ture in a new mu­sic poll of the “Top 10 Great­est Tracks – Ever”. The poll is no­table for the fact that there hasn’t al­ways been such a de­gree of en­light­en­ment in song se­lec­tion. How many sim­i­lar polls have caused us to re­coil in shock and anger be­cause they in­clude those most egre­gious of choices: An­gels by Rob­bie Wil­liams and Bo­hemian Rhap­sody by Queen.

What makes this latest “Poll of Polls” dif­fer­ent is that it was se­lected by ac­tual song­writ­ers. Wis­dom seemed to de­scend overnight as pop mag­a­zine Q rounded up 50 artistes, among them Chris Martin, John Leg­end and Serge Piz­zorno (Kasabian), to nom­i­nate their best song ever.

Of course, there’s still plenty to quarrel about. The Verve’s Bit­ter Sweet Sym­phony top­ping the poll is just plain wrong – par­tic­u­larly as, legally, it should be Mick Jag­ger and Keith Richards’s Bit­ter Sweet Sym­phony. Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and Born to Run were in sec­ond and third place. (Many will tell you that Blowin’ should right­fully be cred­ited to “trad arr.”, but that needn’t de­tain us here.)

The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows is at No 4, fol­lowed by Hal­lelu­jah by Jeff Buck­ley. Feel­ing a bit like the char­ac­ter in the Dylan song, it has to be asked: how many times must peo­ple hear John Cale’s ver­sion of the Co­hen song be­fore they re­alise it is a far su­pe­rior cover to Jeff Buck­ley’s?

Bowie’s Life on Mars and Lou Reed’s Per­fect Day at Nos 6 and 7 lead onto the most in­trigu­ing choice at No 8, ahead of Straw­berry Fields For­ever and Sym­pa­thy for the Devil.

Bil­lie Hol­i­day’s Strange Fruit (No 8) never fea­tures in polls such as th­ese, or in­deed has much of a profile at all in pop­u­lar mu­sic. That’s pos­si­bly be­cause of its sub­ject mat­ter. The song was writ­ten circa 1937 by a Bronx school­teacher, Abel Meeropol, af­ter he had seen a then widely dis­sem­i­nated pho­to­graph of the lynch­ing of two black men in the south­ern US. The lyrics still af­fect:

Black bod­ies swing­ing in the south­ern breeze/Strange fruit hang­ing from the po­plar trees/Pas­toral scene of the gal­lant south/The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth/The scent of mag­no­lia sweet and fresh/Then the sud­den smell of burn­ing flesh.

Made fa­mous by Hol­i­day, Strange Fruit is rarely, if ever, heard on ra­dio, al­though that did change last year when black ra­dio sta­tions in the Los An­ge­les area dusted it off. The DJs played it in re­sponse to the shock­ing be­hav­iour of Michael Richards (Kramer from Se­in­feld) at The Laugh Fac­tory in West Hol­ly­wood. “50 years ago you would have been hung up­side down with a fork up your ass,” Richards said to two black heck­lers in the au­di­ence.

As a news­pa­per re­port put it: “When Richards struck out in anger, try­ing to put some black heck­lers ‘in their place’ – what did he im­me­di­ately pick up and lash out with? Lynch­ing – the in­sti­tu­tion­alised ter­ror and mur­der that was widely used to keep black peo­ple ‘in their place’.”

And they say Strange Fruit has no rel­e­vance any more.

Bil­lie Hol­i­day: back in the top 10 af­ter all th­ese years

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