Much-respected Blues Hall of Fame inductee Bettye LaVette has released her rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ today (12). The vocal stylist took the decision to release the track ahead of schedule because of its all-too-topical poignancy in the issue of American racism and the state of America today.
The haunting classic was written by the Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol, who took motivation from a photo of two black men lynched as a crowd of white people looked in the camera, pointing and smiling. It was first recorded in 1939 in the landmark recording by Billie Holiday. LaVette’s version will be part of her Blackbirds album, due for release on the Verve label on 28 August.
Says LaVette: “It really is horrifying that nearly 80 years later, through Billie’s lifetime and now my 74 years, the meaning of this song still applies. It might not be men and women hanging from trees, but these public executions are now on video and it feels like they’re doing it for sport. I hope the song will be a reminder that we have had enough, and I support the Black Lives Matter movement.”
The Blackbirds album will highlight songs that were primarily popularised by LaVette’s peers, heroes and similarly notable women in music. The record, which reunites the Detroit native with producer Steve Jordan, features Dinah Washington’s ‘Drinking Again,’ Nina Simone’s ‘I Hold No Grudge,’ Nancy Wilson’s Save Your Love For Me,’ to name just three of the songs delivered in LaVette’s rich and soulful blues-flavoured tone.
It’s now 58 years since LaVette made her recording debut, on Atlantic records at the age of just 16. Most recently, she released the album Things Have Changed, also produced by Jordan, on Verve in 2018. It moved Rolling Stone to say that the singer “has re-emerged as one of the foremost interpreters and shapers of popular song.” It went on to receive Grammy nominations, which brings her total to five.