by F.C. Lawrence
It must have been the fall of ‘53, I had a three day pass and come up
from Ft.Dix Over-seas Replacement Center to the city to see a blond
I knew, but by evening was walking up West Broadway, way uptown,
looking for some jazz joint. In those days live bands or “combos" were
all over town, not yet replaced by rock & roll, crooners or table real money poker games. There were
just a few instruments, usually a horn, piano, bass and
whatever else could be got, maybe a singer.
then a rooming-house, at least upstairs. There where many in those
days, the post-war housing boom hadn’t much then sprawled out into
rural life. In front of the brownstone a sandwich-board gave notice:
“Jass Combo Inside” -- no names listed, and then in smaller print:
I went up the front steps, and inside, followed tacked up paper
arrows left. I entered a large, wood-paneled, double living room with
the old separating doors removed and sat down at one of those small,
blacktop formica tables with the 10 watt lamp centered to see your
drinks, a set-up found in many city lounges. The room was dark and the
little band on a short stage faced less than a dozen patrons. It was
already whining away at some old chestnut. After a couple of numbers,
the players sat back, sipped their own drinks, and didn't stir until a
slight female figure came in from the shadows and stepped up to the
little stage, the singer I sup-posed. There were a few whispers
between her and the players and then a dim light lit the stage, only a
bit better than before.
Earlier that day on the bus to the city, I’d read in the papers some
ugly news about a Klan lynching somewhere in the South I’d only left a
few days previous. It’d been an eye-opener for me to see the old
social stratas still operating whenever, as a young yankee G.I., I’d
venture into some small southern town in search of entertainment,
mainly jazz. Being from Gloucester, I hadn’t thought much about racial
matters or the possibility of lynching anyone other than stringing up
to our fishing schooner’s yardarm my wicked skipper, or our bad cook
But right then I was just weary from Ft.Gordon signal training, train
travel from Dix, and apprehensive about being posted next for duty in
The singer had turned to the audience and I realized she was a
colored gal (terms used by mostly whites at that time, although I
often heard southern whites use the term ‘darkie’)
The combo started up with chords and a melody I’d not heard before.
Then the woman began to sing. At first I couldn’t hear her well. Her phrasing was
soft, running before or after the instruments’ bars, but soon got more
firm and seemed to grow in passion. The voice had a slight trill in it
which gave it strange power.
There had been some chatter in the room, but as the intensity of her
delivery grew, all talk ceased. Everything seemed to become soundless
even traffic outside on Broadway. Yet her sound, her lyrics, were
something else, like nothing else. It was more than poetry. There was
no other sound in the room but her voice, the instruments seemed part
“Strange fruit, hanging from ...“ At first those in the room, or
anywhere, might have assumed her song to be about horticulture. It
took a some lines before I got it. ”Scent of magnolias, sweet and
fresh ... Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.”
Something went thump inside me.
It brought back thoughts I’d had while in the South. Thoughts I’d
pushed from my mind.
Although then just twenty, I’d heard a lot of torch songs, mostly on
the radio or the odd clubs in in any town. When younger I’d often
listened to my older sisters’ 78rpm ‘Hit Parade” records, or my
father’s piano version tunes from his First World War army days in
The singer and her song went on. I could sense that others in the
room were as stunned as myself. This “colored gal” had veered off
course from what was always expected. Songs about love, romance,
personal tragedy, or comic tunes with witty lines, maybe a few about
the Depression or the War and loves lost, but not about racal
violence. Not in the Jazz idiom. That was more likely found in folk
songs. This woman had brought the notion of cultural crime into the
entertainment business, into the Art of Jazz. Of course the rhythms,
syncopations, use of drums, sound and scale combinations, had come
from Africa with Slavery. It was originally the Negro music. It was
theirs, but of course had been appropriated along with their lives,
into “The American Experience”whatever that was supposed to be. And it
was still mostly “white” but I’d begun to see it to mean whatever
anyone wanted to make of it. There had long been the “Blues” but that
was sung in a style that, though sympathetic, was personal, relatable,
but removed from the listener, and mostly remote to most whites.
This woman had brought in something different. A painful
difference. It wasn’t really entertainment. It was social commentary.
A condemnation of a culture and an entire society. It was just a song,
but more, poetry, about an ugly racial stain on that so-called
And in its quiet, deliberate delivery, it shocked.
When she was done and the combo had played the last chord, she just
walked off the stage. I noticed no one moved. No one clapped, and no
one spoke. And these were New Yorkers!
I’d had enough for one day, my head swam, I finished my drink and
headed for the door. A guy smoking a cigarette was standing on the
front stoop. I caught his eye, just as an older woman brushed by me.
“Say, who was that!?” I said. “Yeah, who, ya know?” the woman echoed.
“Sure,” said the guy exhaling smoke. “That’s Billie ... ya like
her?” He looked curious, like he wanted to know.
“Billie?” said the woman. “Naw, I mean the singer-gal!”
“Yeah, that’s her name: Billie ... Holiday, like her?” he repeated.
“Funny name for a colored gal. Yeah, she’s different. That last
piece, now that was different.
Know what I mean?”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. ... You, fella?” he said looking at me.
I said. “She’s sure something else!”
I listen to her still, and often, and get the same thump.