[review] Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and Charlotte Riley-Webb

The first time I heard Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit” I was confused. What was she . . . could she be . . . NO! . . . and then the awful realization that she was singing about lynching — one of the most horrific, unconscionable atrocities in American history.

Strangely enough, before I read Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday and the Power of a Protest Song by Gary Golio and Charlotte Riley-Webb, I hadn’t really thought of “Strange Fruit” as a protest song, at least not the kind of protest song popular at Labor Union rallies à la Woody Guthrie, or sung in unison at 60’s civil rights marches or counterculture anti-war sit-ins. Protest songs roused and inspired people to stand up to social injustice; they unified, mobilized and galvanized.

Mister and Lady Day

Of course “Strange Fruit” did all of these things, but I think it should be in a category of its own. It shocked and outraged people, leaving many anguished and ashamed. It was, and still is, hard to listen to, and it was hard on the singer, as it brought to bear her own struggles with racism, violence, drug and alcohol addiction — all the ugliness she had experienced as an African American woman. Billie’s performances of “Strange Fruit” could be thought of as visceral theater. Singing it became an act of courage, as she was sometimes “verbally or physically harassed” afterwards.

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friday feast: jon j muth’s adaptation of bob dylan’s “blowin’ in the wind”

When I first heard Jon J Muth was doing a picture book adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” I fairly swooned.

The mere thought of DYLAN (my best bud who’s probably writing a song about me even as we speak) paired with MUTH (who had me years ago with his panda wearing baggy shorts) made me hyperventilate with anticipation. Just how would he make an iconic, somewhat ambiguous protest song meaningful for children?

Muth cleverly used a paper airplane as a visual metaphor. The “answer,” perhaps written on this folded piece of paper, sails on the wind, ever present but always out of reach. It’s quite an apt metaphor, perfectly in tune with what Dylan himself said when the song was first published in 1962:

Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some  …But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.

Muth’s paper planes travel through lush, dreamy watercolor landscapes, each scene reflecting a different lyric. Four children and a woman, depicted singly or in groups, appear in the narrative — a journey traversing green fields, hillsides, forests and an ocean. The paper airplane is always present — a silent lodestar which takes on spiritual connotations (“How many seas must the white dove sail/Before she sleeps in the sand?”). I am reminded that the Native Americans view birds as messengers between heaven and earth. The ethereal, capricious wind, invisible but for the flittering of a paper plane, can gently usher in change or cause mass destruction.

Ironically, Dylan didn’t consider “Blowin’ in the Wind” a protest song. It was adapted from the Negro spiritual, “No More Auction Block,” and contains Biblical rhetoric, so it “follows the same feeling” — inspirational as gospel music is, but not political. He claims he wrote the song in ten minutes!

Muth’s idyllic landscapes, characterized by a soothing, inherent stillness, reflect the song’s entreaty for peace, harmony and freedom. The sheer majesty of these natural scenes are in keeping with the spiritual feeling Dylan intended. Each child has his own plane, must travel his own path, find his own answers. By the end of the book, the children and the woman are all playing together with a big red ball. Nearby, there’s an old cannon draped with the flags of several nations, a single red balloon tied to it.

The final spread shows all the paper planes gliding in unison high in the sky. There may be different answers, but only one human truth. Basically we all want the same things. A fleet of planes, the collective unconscious. Single notes join in 12-part harmony, a beautiful chorus.

This new picture book will make it possible for parents and teachers to share Dylan’s song with a new generation of children who’ve never known a time when America was not at war. It comes with a CD of the original studio recording of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and there’s also an Author’s Note and a Note from music historian Greil Marcus, which discusses the song’s universal, timeless message and describes what the world was like when the song became a civil rights anthem in the 60’s.

The open-ended narrative and use of enigmatic symbols (red balloon, red ball, red boat, acoustic guitar passed down to the children from a man living in a walled city), will challenge children of different ages (and adults) to draw their own conclusions, interpret as they will. Muth’s use of red, in particular, could spark interesting discussion: is it the color of strength and love, or a reminder of blood shed in senseless wars? Is it the rising sun, the dawn of new hope (since the boy on the cover, the only one able to touch a plane, is wearing a red shirt)? Or is it fire — to complement the earth, air and water so prevalent in the pictures?

For almost 50 years, “Blowin’ in the Wind” has reminded us of these painful unanswerable questions. Muth says:

Freedom and joy are not care-free. Escape from the burdens of life isn’t freedom. Freedom is full of care for everything. That means we must be a part of what all people want for themselves and for humanity. The doors of the heart will then be thrown open to wind from every direction.

Reach for the paper airplane, unfold it and read what is written there.♥

*Dylan first performed “Blowin’ in the Wind” at Gerde’s Folk City in NYC on April 16, 1962. Since then, he’s performed it live 1050 times, the most recent being last night in Leipzig, Germany. Enjoy this live television performance from 1963:

 

BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND
written by Bob Dylan
illustrated by Jon J Muth
published by Sterling Children’s Books, November 2011
Picture Book for ages 5+, 28 pp.
Includes CD
*On shelves now!

I’d love for you to share any thoughts or memories you might have related to this song. Do you remember when you first heard it?

 

♥ Related reviews on this blog: Man Gave Names to All the Animals illustrated by Jim Arnosky (Sterling), When Bob Met Woody by Gary Golio and Marc Burckhardt (Little, Brown).

 

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“Bob Dylan sets up a number of questions, like ‘how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died? and finds that ‘The answer is blowin’ in the wind.’ This is a poet’s answer to an unanswerable question, and it has the effect of poetry, which is to open up the sky.” ~ Frank Kermode and Stephen Spender (“The Metaphor at the End of the Funnel”, Esquire, 1972).

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*Spreads posted by permission, copyright © 2011 Jon J Muth, published by Sterling Children’s Books. All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2011 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.

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