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The Deep Jewish Roots of Kanye West's Awesome 'Blood on the Leaves'.

Why did Kanye West sample "Strange Fruit" for his song "Blood on the Leaves"? It's the biggest mystery of his troubled masterpiece Yeezus, which makes it by default the biggest mystery of music in 2013. No artist dared to even attempt to be as interesting as Kanye West this yearother AAA acts like Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake were content preening in mirrors, like parakeets in cages littered with press releases calling them visionaries. Yeezus is a bull and a bullfighter all in one, with destruction and celebration intermingling and often inseparable. Subtlety doesn't exist in the world of Kanye West's sixth album, which blasts through its 40 minutes without taking a second breath. Multitudes of samples and influences are present on Yeezus, from Chicago's current no-adults-allowed drill rap scene to the industrial sounds of '80s bands like Ministry to any other type of sound that settles for nothing less than the listener's complete attention. But even with all the Roland TR-808s in the world, "Blood on the Leaves," with Nina Simone's voice singing Abel Meeropol's lyrics, stands out above all else.

The story of "Strange Fruit" is an unexpected one, with roots in the Jewish-American socialism that was so common in the 1930s. Meeropol's story is well-documented by nowa Bronx-born-and-raised schoolteacher, he wrote "Strange Fruit" not as a song but a poem, in response to Leonard Beitler's horrifying 1930 photo of the of lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, In. Meeropol's wife, as well as black vocalist Laura Duncan, performed the song a few times, and it soon found its way to Billie Holliday. The song would keep his family awash in royalties for his entire life and would play at his funeral. As David Margolick describes in his 2001 book, Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, there remains a dispute over whether Holliday understood the song's central metaphor"Southern trees bear a strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root"at her first recording, but it hardly matters: Her voice describes such terrible pain that it's easy to get a gut feeling that you've arrived at the aftermath of a terrible crime. Barney Josephson, who ran Cafe Society, where Holiday performed regularly, would say that "She sang it just as well when she didn't know what it was about." Josephson almost never took a special interest in what, precisely, Holiday was singing, but rules were drawn up over how and when "Strange Fruit" could be performed: All food and drink service stopped before its performance, the only light in the room would shine on Holliday's face, and it would end the night.

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Author:Grossman, David Meir
Publication:Tablet Magazine
Date:Dec 9, 2013
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