Survey of favourite songs bears strange fruit indeed
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