Mortal Still

In the rolling green of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, there’s an elm fenced off from would-be climbers and initial carvers. It’s a little-known subspecies called the Camperdown Elm, named for the Scottish earl whose head forester discovered it in the early 19th century, and depending on whether you’re an arborist or an artist you may or may not find it beautiful.

Its shape is all wrong for a tree, for one. Most any other kind would grow skyward, all the way to its twigs, the better to filter in the nourishing light of the sun. This ascension is called “negative geotropism,” meaning growth against gravity, but the Camperdown Elm lacks this gene due to a misprint in its nucleic code. As a result, its branches get lost somewhere on their way to the sky, and spend their lifetimes wandering about, crookedly, as if hoping still to find it. They never do, but they find something else to reach for: the earth, in which their own bodies are rooted. The Prospect Park arborists, anticipating this behavior in their Camperdown, planted it on a small mound so that its branches had room to droop freely. Because of the way its branches pour down, the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park is commonly said to be weeping.

And it has plenty to weep about, the plight of its misguided branches notwithstanding: It’s also barren, and likely homesick. Because of its mutation, no Camperdown Elm can reproduce from its own seed; the original specimen in Scotland is the only one of its kind ever found growing organically, and its only means of progeny is by human hands—through the grafting of vascular tissue onto a host.

To graft is to slice from the old and implant in the new, then to wait and hope for two disparate bodies to bind and grow as one. The fact that Camperdown Elms have been grafted all over the earth is a testament to the power of this human tampering, and the intransigent appeal of the odd.

The Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park stands thirteen feet tall, and, craning your head up toward its baffled web of bark and green, you wouldn’t think that just two generations ago (a blink of an eye, of course, in the life of a tree) it teetered on the plant world’s equivalent of a deathbed. When a team from the Bartlett Tree Co. performed its first inspection of the elm in 1967, they were—to quote a subsequent company newsletter—“horrified” at what they found.

The tree gaped with so many cavities that it was nearly hollow. A huge nest of carpenter ants had colonized the fleshy inner cambium, chewing away with a million imperceptible mouthfuls. City rats had joined in the effort, too, clawing ins and outs all through the trunkbed.

It didn’t help that grafted trees, like the Camperdown, are prone to weak joints between branches. These are the points that bear the most load, where its two tissues struggle most to fuse together. And so the Camperdown Elm, lacking infrastructure inside and out, was on the brink of splintering under its own weeping weight.

The arborists recommended immediate and extensive surgery. It would need to be excised of its great pulpy swaths of rotting deadwood, and its heavy overgrowth needed to be pruned with abandon. It would need a drain tube to address what the company newsletter described lightly as a “slime flux problem.” It would need to have wire mesh stretched over the holes at the base of its trunk, where the rats had scritched their way through to the other side. It would need a system of cables installed to support those limbs that were on their last legs, as well as steel reinforcement bars in the frailest joints. And it would need around one hundred pounds of Bartlett Green Tree Food Fertilizer™.

Like the Camperdown Elm, the poet Marianne Moore was no spring chicken. She was pushing 80 years old at the time, and though her earlier work had earned her a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, most critics had written off most of what she’d penned in the past two decades. She must’ve been surprised to receive a postcard from a parks activist named M. M. Graff, nickname Dickie, asking her if she would please write a poem on the tree’s behalf.

Without money, Dickie explained, the tree would surely die—and the parks budget was at an all-time low, relying on volunteer groups to carry out basic cleanup and maintenance work. It was 1967, after all, and as New York City historian Eric Homberger wrote in New York City: A Cultural and Literary Companion, money was being thrown at signs of rot at the social level—signs like protests and riots, rots like racism and the Vietnam War—resulting in what he called a “disastrous legacy of neglect” for the parks systems.

But this also raises a question. If the city’s finances were caving in all over, and cavities were ones of human dignity on a massive and immediate scale, why should she—why should we, as in all of us—care about some rotten, crooked old tree?

Interestingly, the elm has long been mythologized as a tree whose life (and death) is bound up in our sense of justice. In the Iliad, mountain nymphs planted elms at the grave of “great-hearted Protesilaus,” the first Greek to fall in the Trojan War, and these elms ended up growing to the world’s tallest. They were what Homer described as “trees full of anger”: sound of trunk, steep of branch, and reaching so persistently skyward that their uppermost branches could see, from afar, Troy falling.

But for those angered leaves and branches that bore witness to this historical moment, there was a price to pay for reaching such grandiose heights. When they saw what they saw, they withered and fell down, dead as the slain soldier who nourished them into life. So powerful was the bitterness of Protesilaus, all the way under the ground, that his bitterness was its own form of gravity. For the elms, theirs was a seed that was also a corpse.

This fruit, fittingly, was of no use to us at all. It was ugly to look at—paper-thin, paper-dry, flat and round and worthless as a depreciated coin—and inedible to boot. Virgil’s

Aeneid refers to a Roman superstition that regarded elms as omens of bad luck, due in part to that strange fruit and its utter lack of utility. And for Camperdown elms, who can’t reproduce without being grafted, this fruit is not even of use to itself. It’s purely decorative, devoid of any potential for new life.

All the same, Marianne Moore wrote that lifesaving poem per Dickie’s request. It was printed in the Sept. 23, 1967 issue of The New Yorker, and it made a plaintive call for action:

 

I think, in connection with this weeping elm,

of “Kindred Spirits” at the edge of a rockledge

overlooking a stream:

Thanatopsis-invoking tree-loving Bryant

conversing with Thomas Cole

 in Asher Durand’s painting of them

under the filigree of an elm overhead.

No doubt they had seen other trees—lindens,

maples and sycamores, oaks and the Paris

street-tree, the horse-chestnut; but imagine

their rapture, had they come on the Camperdown elm’s

massiveness and “the intricate pattern of its branches,”

arching high, curving low, in its mist of fine twigs.

 

The Bartlett tree-cavity specialist saw it

and thrust his arm the whole length of the hollowness

of its torso and there were six small cavities also.

 

Props are needed and tree-food. It is still leafing;

still there. Mortal though. We must save it. It is

          our crowning curio.

 

The poem stirred sympathy in the old-moneyed readers it was written for, and, under their auspices, the tree flourished. By 1970, the Bartlett Tree Company’s procedures were well underway. Dickie sent updates to Moore via postcard: “It’s now growing almost too exuberantly!” he gushed, exuberantly.

Literary critics were less enthused. They said that the poem—if they found it worth mentioning at all—was just not very good. And it’s true that it may not be beautiful in the way that “A Graveyard” is, or “An Octopus.”

But neither is the Camperdown Elm. And maybe neither of them have to be. Because no matter what the critics say, Moore’s poem was good from the standpoint of the tree—which is to say, the poem did what it set out to do, and what few poems have done with such measurable success: It made itself useful, even if this utility only began and ended with a sad, sick tree. And

no matter how ugly and bitter and useless the fruit, there are few things more beautiful than something mortal worth saving.

//

 

In Harlem one night in 1939, the girl once called Eleanora stood onstage at the Café Society, afraid. The Café Society was the only integrated nightclub in New York at the time, one that drew progressive-leaning crowds who generally took to her kindly, so that wasn’t why she was afraid, exactly. She was afraid because they always clapped the loudest when she spiced up old classics, especially love ballads, safe and sweet, and beautiful.

She knew they had not come to hear a song about a tree, or the dead men swinging from its branches, or the lacerating consequences of a darkness both visible and not. She was afraid people would hate the song, and her for singing it. Maybe strongly enough to do something about it.

Even so, the singer who called herself Billie Holiday sang:

 

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

 

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth

 

Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

 

When she finished, there was a horrible silence that for a short and endless moment seemed to confirm all her fears. “There wasn’t even a patter of applause,” goes the passage in her autobiography, years later. She could sense the itchy hush of people shifting around in their seats, all of them waiting for something to happen. “Then,” it is written, “a lone person began to clap nervously.”

The spell was broken. The room pitched into the familiar cadence of applause. Her song would go on to be included in the Library of Congress’ National Music Registry, named song of the century by Time magazine. It would be covered by the likes of Lou Rawls, Diana Ross, and Nina Simone, who called it “the ugliest song I ever heard.” Angela Davis would call it the most important song of the singer’s career.

A quick word on that autobiography. Titled Lady Sings the Blues, it’s considered by most experts to be an interesting historical document and nothing more. The ghost writer, William Dufty, certainly fictionalized his fair share. But even outside of those pages, it was clear that Billie, when left to tell the story in her own words, didn’t always tell it like the most important thing was to make it true. And so, now and then, she took credit for the composition of “Strange Fruit.” It doesn’t really matter why, in part because the reason seems obvious: the song was hers. It belonged to her, in the way that pain belongs to the person who feels it. In the way that beauty belongs to the person who sees it.

The strange truth is, the song was written by a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx who had happened to see a photograph. The photograph was taken on an August evening in 1930, when two black men were strung up on a tree in Marion, Indiana. Their names were Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, and the photograph shows their bodies dangling, bruised and filthy from the beatings earlier that night, over a crowd of men in ties and newsboy caps, women radiant in their Sunday best.

A quick word on the Jewish schoolteacher. He was a poet, a communist, and an amateur musician. He was also moved, more than most of us, by plights. His name was Abel Meeropol, but he wrote poems under the pseudonym Lewis Allan; each name was an homage to his two stillborn sons, because Meeropol also knew something of what it meant to be a Camperdown elm, whose progeny would never grow, either.

The children he did raise had been grafted, so to speak, from one family onto another. In 1953, when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed on charges of espionage, Meeropol and his wife heard about the two boys left behind and set out to adopt them. The procedure took.

The song “Strange Fruit” started out, like Moore’s ode to the Camperdown elm, as a poem. Meeropol first called it “Bitter Fruit” because bitterness seemed the natural flavor for an ode to violence and horror and pain. But sometimes a thing grows better when you let it twist up in its own way. He changed the title to something less didactic when he sat down at a piano, and set the words to a sparse and aching key.

Another thing about Abel Meeropol was that he couldn’t bear to kill anything that was alive. In his backyard, there grew this big Japanese maple that would snow seedlings all over his lawn every year, and he refused to mow the grass until they were saved, every one. One of the boys he adopted, now grown, recounted in a recent NPR story how Meeropol would carefully dig up all the little coiled shoots. He placed them in empty coffee cans, until they ringed his house and sprouted by the hundreds.

After the song’s iffy but unequivocally successful trial run in the Café Society, the nightclub owners established some ground rules around future performances. It was to be a staple of Billie’s repertoire, but always her last song of the night. During the number, there were to be none of the usual distractions of a packed venue. Waiters would suspend their services, customer satisfaction be damned, and all the lights in the house were to be killed except for one lone bulb at the front, which would cast light down on Billie’s face like a dim and distant sun.

The audience members would sit together, alone in the darkness, unable to see each other’s faces. The only place to look was at her.

She didn’t look back at them, though. She had her own kind of rule, which was maybe more of a ritual, and maybe an instinct most of all. Her eyes were closed, and her face was tilted up toward that singular wash of light.

 

//

 

One hundred and two years ago last April, a woman named Sadie Fagan gave birth in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. The child’s name was Eleanora Fagan, and she didn’t have much in the way of a daddy.

She had a father, of course—Clarence Halliday, sometimes spelled Holiday, whom Eleanora never really knew. He’d skipped town shortly after she was born to pursue his budding career as a banjoist in a jazz band, and in this regard, he was not a total failure. He played with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra from 1928 to 1933.

Good for him.

 

Sadie, in the meantime, was left to shoulder the interminable burden of being a poor black woman with a baby out of wedlock. To make ends meet, she’d spend months at a time working transportation jobs on passenger trains, leaving Eleanora in the care of a cousin, who hit her.

With both parents so absent from her life, absence took on its own kind of presence at the roots of Eleanora’s world. She started skipping school, so much that she appeared before a juvenile court at age nine. On Christmas Eve that year, Sadie came home to find Eleanora fighting her way out from underneath a slimy neighborhood man by the name of Wilbur Rich.

During the ensuing trial, Eleanora was shipped off to the House of the Good Shepherd, a Catholic reform school, for protective custody. But the reforms didn’t stick, and at the ripe old age of eleven she dropped out of school completely.

She got a job scrubbing floors at a local brothel. There was a record player she was allowed to listen to. Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong were her favorites. Sometimes she even sang along.

A few years later, Eleanora moved to Harlem with her Sadie, who’d been doing sex work there at the time. Eleanora started off scrubbing floors again, but it wasn’t long before this stopped sticking, too. When it did, she charged twenty bucks a client.

A few months later, in May, when the buds were unfurling on the trees, there was a bust. The cops hauled Sadie off to a workhouse, from which she was released in the thick heat of July.

But because Eleanora was so young, only 14 or 15 depending on the source, she was deemed too young for the workhouse and spent the summer in a jail cell instead. By the time she got out again, it was October, and all the leaves were turning to brown.

Fresh out of prison and penniless, Eleanora tried out as a dancer at a speakeasy. “One day we were so hungry we could barely breathe,” she once recalled. “It was cold as all hell and I walked from 145th to 133rd (Street) … going in every joint trying to find work … I stopped in the Log Cabin Club run by Jerry Preston (and) told him I was a dancer. He said to dance. I tried it. He said I stunk. I told him I could sing. He said sing. Over in the corner was an old guy playing the piano. He struck ‘Trav’lin’ and I sang. The customers stopped drinking. They turned around and watched. The pianist swung into ‘Body and Soul.’ Jeez, you should have seen those people—all of them started crying. Preston came over, shook his head and said, ‘Kid, you win.’ ” Her stage name, grafted from that of a jazz banjoist and an actress she loved, would be Billie Holiday.

Singing was a step down from sex work, salary-wise—she started off on two dollars a night, working shifts that ran from midnight until 3 in the afternoon the next day. But it seemed as if, in shedding the name she’d been given at birth, she also shed the bad luck that had followed her around ever since.

Which is to say, good luck started sticking around for longer. The major music producer John Hammond, while at a Harlem speakeasy to hear a better-known singer, heard Billie filling in. Declaring her the best jazz singer he’d ever heard in his life, Hammond arranged for her to record with the legendary Benny Goodman.

In 1934, Billie and Goodman released “Your Mother’s Son-in-Law” and “Riffin’ the Scotch.” The next year, she recorded with pianist Teddy Wilson, appeared in the film Symphony in Black with Duke Ellington, and released, among other seminal hits, the jaunty “Miss Brown To You.” And suddenly, against all odds, little Eleanora Fagan—the same black girl from Baltimore whose life until now had been a grim parade of abandonment, poverty, violence, brothels, and jail—had become one of the highest-paid performers of her time.

Even so, Eleanora’s hard luck kept haunting Billie, in bottles and brown stuff and fists of lovers she struggled to leave, many of them pimps, all of them thieves. Among them was her manager John Levy, who once knifed her after she broke a Coke bottle over his head; trumpeter Joe Guy, who hooked her on heroin; and her last husband Louis McKay, who was secretly taped saying about Billie, “If I got a whore, I get some money from her, or I don’t have anything to do with the bitch.”

//

 

Once, there was a beautiful nymph named Leuce with whom the god Pluto fell hopelessly in love. He kidnapped her and brought her to his home in the underworld, where she lived out the remainder of her days as his captor. But she was mortal still, and, as mortal things one day do, she died. Pluto was desolate. And so he resolved to memorialize her in the Elysian fields, where the pious dead whiled away their untarnished eternities. In her memory, he planted a single white poplar.

The poplars that Billie sings of in the song “Strange Fruit,” like the elms on Protesilaus’ tomb, were also living graves for the dead. But the bodies in Billie’s song rotted from branches, and not under roots.

When Abel Meeropol wrote the song, it’s unclear whether he knew that poplars are rhizomatic, which is to say that poplars don’t grow alone. They share an underground root system with swaths of other poplars, all connected to each other in a fibrous, earthen mass of shared resource that are funneled where they’re needed most. This strong, unfailing system of support is what gives poplars their famously long and resilient lives: as long as the root system remains intact, a poplar will find a way to grow through most anything. It’s also why in October, when viewed from above, a group of poplars appears as distinct patches of color.

The long shadow of “Strange Fruit” seems bound up in its arboreal imagery, and I’m not sure what this says about the nature of our empathy as a connective tissue to other people. What does it mean that these poplars helped Billie tap into a reservoir of shared horror, and what does it mean for us that this connection wasn’t strong enough to heal its own wounds, which wept in Billie, too? And why, like the Camperdown elm that Moore’s readers were moved to save, like the lynching tree that Billie’s listeners were moved to confront, does the ugliness of their twisted forms make them so sacred?

//

 

If the legacy of “Strange Fruit” lives in the rotted poplar roots of our society, then the trajectory of Billie’s life, and voice, was a little bit like the Camperdown elm. Her signature downslope of a long, slow note, until it went flat at the end, then faded, was her own geotropic trajectory. It was like sound succumbing to gravity, if gravity carried the same ineluctable weight as despair.

Still, compared to someone like Ella Fitzgerald, Holiday’s range wasn’t very large at all; if she went too high she got tinny, if she went too low she almost croaked. But this meant you

could feel her straining against her limitations, hear her pushing against her ceilings and floors, and witness how within these walls she planted a garden.

In that garden bloomed a new strain of rhythm, one whose fruit was inextricable from the time signature it was tethered to. Billie wrapped her voice around that rhythm like it was a pergola, something to curl around without quite kissing. If she had to cede authority to the measures that marked the passage of time, she could at least make a game of doing so, bending notes like they were rules and refusing to anchor her wry and sailing syllables, or trim the wingtips of her syncopated blares and glides.

Twisting the notes was simple for Billie, natural, but for a singer like Frank Sinatra it was a revelation. He said, “It is Billie Holiday … who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.” A gossip columnist named Earl Wilson found Billie and probed her for details.

“Listen, darling,” she told him. “I didn’t teach Frank anything. I told him about notes at the end he should bend, and later he said I inspired him. Bending those notes—that’s all I helped Frankie with.”

This was in 1958, the year before her death at the age of 44. It had been a while coming. By the time the gossip column printed what she had said, Billie’s voice was already starting to turn sour, corroding under the harsh acerbic solutions of alcohol and loneliness. It wasn’t long before the edges of her vocal range frayed even further, and a sandpapery quality crept into her slurs and falls. It was a voice splintered at the end and gaping with cavities, warped on its way out by the cracked and blighted skin on her lips, fault-lined from all those years of bending notes, bending rules, and bending itself into a twisted, sorry O. She was the Camperdown elm that no one saved.

Sinatra visited her in the hospital when the lung congestion and liver cirrhosis finally caught up with her. The cops did too, one last time. They raided her hospital room, placed her under arrest for the heroin they found, and cuffed her to the bedframe so she couldn’t escape.

At ninety-five pounds, I imagine she could have slipped her wrists out if she’d wanted.

 

But what would she do? Her cabaret license had long been revoked, due to her prior drug convictions. No one wanted to hire a black junkie singer so her salary had long dried up, and her savings had been funneled into her body, or to her boyfriends. Plus, drug agents had been trailing her for years; they would find her.

Maybe part of the reason why people were so moved by Moore’s poem was also part of the reason why people kept coming back to listen to Billie, and “Strange Fruit” in particular.

How could such an ugly, bitter thing feel so strangely beautiful?

 

“Strange Fruit” has been called the first real protest song, and in many ways it was Billie’s protest against her own life. Her “crowning curio,” as Moore might put it. But a protest, like a song, can also be a prayer for something worth saving.

We didn’t save her, though. She died a hollowed woman, eaten away from the inside out. Poisoned. After she died, Sinatra locked himself in his penthouse, where he drank and cried and played her records for days. And for how much Billie’s been celebrated, it’s Sinatra who’s more widely remembered for the smooth glamor of his lifestyle and song.

Every April, New York City’s Woodlawn Cemetery participates in Jazz Appreciation Month. Since the Harlem Renaissance, the cemetery has been a popular burial ground for

musicians of grandeur, remembered ostentatiously, like Miles Davis and Jackie McClean and Lionel Hampton, the latter whose people arranged for his burial there years before he died.

Billie, who wasn’t buried in Woodlawn, died with 70 cents in her bank account and $750 strapped to her leg in cash. Her abusive and by-then estranged husband, Louis McKay, had been left to make the funeral arrangements. Although wealthy donors offered to fund the burial they felt she deserved, and public collection tins rattled with donations from the grief-stricken masses, it was too late to save her as the Camperdown Elm would be saved. It was mortal still, and she was no longer.

Besides, McKay refused to comply with such fanfare. He had her body buried next to her mother Sadie’s, way out in the Bronx, where they lay side by side for years. There was neither elm nor poplar to mark her grave. Just empty ground.

photo credit: Rosser1954 via Wikimedia Commons 

About the author

EmmaJean Holley is a graduate student in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She writes about art, books, and education for a newspaper in Vermont, where she lives with her partner and cat.

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