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The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 1[The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 1]

I was trying to make a home-made pistol. I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone. I didn’t know who… —Nina Simone

In 1964, Civil Rights workers, known as Freedom Riders, were increasingly becoming the victims of violent attacks from the Ku Klux Klan as they initiated a program to register black voters in the Deep South. As members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the advocates were frantically racing against time in an effort to send representatives to the 1964 Democratic National Convention to push the party agenda toward a Voter's Rights Act. In his book Freedom Summer (Viking, 2010), Bruce Watson tells the story of how SNCC recruited the singer Harry Belafonte to help raise money for the cause. Belafonte, whose political beliefs were largely shaped by singer, actor and Communist activist Paul Robeson, had previously helped the group raise money for a March on Washington and he agreed to support them again. Belafonte's celebrity influence was considerable and it crossed color lines. As a regular New York City club performer he was backed by a band that included Charlie Parker, Max Roach and Miles Davis, but Belafonte was well aware of the limits of his status in the South.

Belefonte raised sixty-thousand dollars and decided to travel to Greenwood, Mississippi himself to deliver the money. Nervous about making the trip alone, he enlisted his friend, the actor Sidney Poitier, to accompany him. The two arrived at night, in a single-engine propeller plane and were transferred to a car provided by members of SNCC. As they started their drive, three other cars that had been hidden and waiting in a corn field chased them through the maze of crops, repeatedly ramming their car. The pursuing cars were driven by Klansmen and only when Belafonte's car reached the Black section of Greenwood did the Klansmen retreat. Belafonte and Poitier were ushered into the local Elks hall and delivered the money to the waiting Civil Rights workers. Fearing another attack, the group decided to spend the night in the hall with two shotguns keeping watch at the doors and windows. The fear was rational; there had been seven murders of blacks and thirty black church burnings in the space of weeks; all were related to the SNCC efforts and none were a priority for the local police. What kept the small group from feeling even more isolated and threatened that night was music, as the advocates and Belafonte engaged in rounds of Civil Rights protest songs, some spontaneously created.

There is more than a dotted line that connects the American Communist Party to the Civil Rights movement and the music associated with the movement's early days. The party was founded about 1919 as a splinter group, out of the Socialist Party of America. Largely made up of white European immigrants it nevertheless took on a significant and early role in the struggle against racism and the Jim Crow laws of the South. Black Americans had been shunned by the Socialist Party mainly because the organization was inextricably linked to labor unions that blatantly practiced discrimination in their hiring practices. In contrast, the Communist Party openly recruited disenfranchised blacks, mainly immigrants from the Caribbean countries, in the early days of the party.

By the 1930s almost two-million Southern blacks migrated north for industrial jobs in urban factories. This phenomena raised awareness of the American Communist Party among blacks north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line and their membership in the party swelled. But as a resistance movement, the relationship was hampered by widespread discrimination and the first phases of a national "Red Scare" that would reach its height with the rise of Joseph McCarthy's reign of intensified political repression and fear mongering. The fight against racism needed a broader channel of communication—something that the universal language of music could provide.

Strange Fruit

Considered by many to be the first important Civil Rights protest song, "Strange Fruit" is often thought to be a Billie Holiday composition. In fact, an unassuming New York City schoolteacher and loyal Communist Party member, Abel Meeropol, had written the song (originally as a poem titled "Bitter Fruit") in 1936. Meeropol was better known as the adoptive father of the two sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, following their parents' execution for espionage. Journalist David Margolick, who wrote Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (Ecco, 2000) explains that Meeropol, a Civil Rights activist, did not have Holiday in mind at the time he penned the song. Meeropol had been driven by a shockingly graphic Lawrence Beitler photograph in the New York Post, showing the 1930 mob lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana; murders for which no one was ever convicted. Meeropol added music so that his wife could perform the song. He later shared the song with the singer Laura Duncan who performed it at Madison Square Garden. It had yet to reach the significant popularity that would come with Holiday's arrangement.

"Strange Fruit" was a milestone in Holiday's career and she was perceptive enough to capitalize on it, if not always in the most sound manner. Her troubled life led her to make claims about the song that simply weren't true. Chief among them was that Meeropol, upon hearing Holiday sing at a Harlem club, decided—on the spot—that he would set the poem to music for her; that she, in Holiday's own recollection, was the only singer that could do justice to his words. The urban myth never completely disappeared. As late as 1995, the Pulitzer Prize winning classical composer Ned Rorem inexplicably questioned Meeropol's legacy with no supporting evidence and almost ten years after Meeropol's death. In retrospect, it hardly mattered as Holiday would come to be inextricably linked to the song.

Café Society was the first integrated night club in the US. Holiday and her pianist Sonny White, having modified Meeropol's original musical arrangement, performed the song at the Greenwich Village venue in 1939 and the immediate audience reaction was stunned silence. Nevertheless, "Strange Fruit" quickly grew in popularity and became her regular closing number, complete with dramatic lighting and no encores. Recording the song was a different story. Holiday, under contract to Columbia Records, found her label flatly refusing to issue a recording for fear of offending its Southern distributors. A much smaller label, the Dixieland-oriented Commodore Records, produced the recording in 1939 and it sold more than one million copies.