It’s one of the most chilling and vivid songs I’ve ever heard. I can’t remember the first time I heard it, but I can remember the looks on kids faces when they comprehended the meaning. I can remember front loading them with the fact that the vocal style was a bit out of their comfort zone, but I can also remember the rich conversations about emphasis, tone, atmosphere, and a myriad other literary aspects. No, she didn’t write the song. But yes, she owned it.

Analyzing poetry was one of my favorite things to do with students as an ELA teacher. We’d pair it with song and visual art as often as possible, and to have something as unique as “Strange Fruit” was something I always appreciated. Perhaps it was in that drawn out delivery, echoing the extended periods of suffering endured of black people; or those measured pauses, ringing of the horror at recognizing the lack of care for basic human rights; or perhaps it was the crescendo at the end, mirroring the wailing tears of loss and the building frustration and anger at such rampant injustice; whatever it was, this song and video always produced dialogue that let my students’ lights shine brighter than what so many other expected, so bright against such dark content. It brought tears to my eyes on countless occasions and always gave me goosebumps.

We’d use this song as both part of a Civil Rights discussion and part of our poetry units. It was a wonderful anchor text, but even more importantly it spoke to the students on a very profound level. It took what we were studying and made it more visceral. It provided a fresh perspective, much like the song opened so many eyes to the atrocity of lynching and countless other injustices.

Billie Holiday’s voice was surreal, and her massive contribution to music can’t be denied. She’s an immortal. It’s unfortunate that her message still resonates to this day, but we’re lucky to have such a powerful, authentic voice to deliver it.

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