The United States vs. Billie Holiday: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics Was Formed to Kill Jazz

Federal authorization of selective enforcement should come as no surprise. Just this month, HBO Max released Judas and the Black Messiah about how the FBI and local law enforcement targeted the Black Panthers and put a bullet in the back of the head of Fred Hampton after he was apparently drugged by the informant. In MLK/FBI (2020), director Sam Pollard used newly declassified files to fill in the gaps on the story of the U.S. government’s surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King, Jr. Days ago, The Washington Post reported the daughters of assassinated civil rights leader Malcolm X requested his murder investigation be reopened in light of a deathbed letter from officer Raymond A. Wood, alleging New York police and the FBI conspired in his killing.

During the closing credits of The United States vs. Billie Holiday we read that Holiday, played passionately by Andra Day in the film, was similarly arrested on her deathbed. She was in the hospital suffering from cirrhosis of the liver when she was cuffed to her bed. They don’t mention police had been stationed outside her door barring family, fans, and well-wishers from offering the singer comfort as she lay dying. They also don’t mention that police removed gifts people brought to the room, as well as flowers, radio, record player, chocolates, and any magazines. When she died at age 44, it was found that Holiday had 15 $50 bills strapped to her leg, the remainder of her money after years of top selling records. Billie intended to give it to the nurses to thank them for looking after her.

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As The United States vs. Billie Holiday points out, the feds had been watching Holiday since club owner Barney Josephson encouraged her to sing “Strange Fruit” at the integrated Cafe Society in Greenwich Village in 1939. Waiters would stop all service during the performance of the song. The room would be dark, and it would never be followed by an encore.

The lyric came from a three-stanza poem, “Bitter Fruit,” about a lynching. It was written by Lewis Allan, the pseudonym of New York schoolteacher and songwriter named Abel Meeropol, a costumer at the club. Meeropol set the words to music, and the song was first performed by singer Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden.

Holiday and her accompanist Sonny White adapted Allan’s melody and chord structure, and released the song on Milt Gabler’s independent label Commodore Records in 1939. The legendary John Hammond, who discovered Holiday in 1933 while she was singing in a Harlem nightclub called Monette’s, refused to release it on Columbia Records, where Billie was signed. 

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