Ossining Author Explores 'Strange Fruit' Of Billie Holiday

OSSINING, N.Y. -- A whole new generation is being introduced to a song about civil rights, made famous by Billie Holiday.

Gary Golio
Gary Golio Photo Credit: Laurel Golio

Ossining resident Gary Golio is the author of "Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song," a children's book for ages seven to 11 that was released in February. Golio's wife, Susanna Reich, is also a children's book author and recently published a book on Pete Seger.

Golio's book is set at Cafe Society in March of 1939, an integrated nightclub where Holiday first sang the anti-lynching protest song was written Abel Meeropol.

"There was just a spotlight on her face," Golio, who previously published a children's book about Jimi Hendrix, said. "Everything stopped when she sang the song. She left through the back curtain, there was no encore. She did not come out afterward. It was very powerful."

At first, people didn't know whether to applaud, but someone in the audience started clapping and the song soon received thunderous applause. Despite the reception, Columbia Records would not record it. The song eventually sold 1 million copies even though it couldn't be played on the radio.

Meeropol wrote the song after seeing images of lynching, and wrote "Strange Fruit" as a poem, later putting it to music. After Holiday's performance, she faced an intense backlash.

"She was spat upon, assaulted, insulted, humiliated and blacklisted," Golio said. "But she wrote it in her contact that whenever she performed, she was allowed to perform 'Strange Fruit.' She was very brave."

Golio said the book speaks to the bravery of people who used the power of art and music to fight injustice and try to change hearts and minds. The song had an effect on activists/artists like Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. 

A devoted music fan, Golio said he always wanted to write a book about Holliday but struggled telling the story in a way that was appropriate to children.

"The last thing I wanted to do was traumatize anyone," Golio said. "I worked with a therapist to help me write the book appropriately. I wanted to demonstrate her bravery as an artist and as a woman. Plus, I just love her music."

Golio will be appearing at the Youth Book Festival at the Desmond-Fish Library in Garrison on April 8 from 2 to 4 p.m. and at Oblong Books in Rhinebeck on April 29 at 11 a.m.

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