In light of a yet another story that broke nationally due to the strength of Twitter, I found myself wondering why the power of a song and the artistry behind the music and lyrics didn’t get much focus. Being from Austin, Texas I was especially obsessed with the story this week about a PR firm that chose the unfortunate title of Strange Fruit for their business, then intentionally refused to change their name through an ongoing period of online nudges to right their insensitive wrong.
Despite all the things wrong with this story, I hope you understand my fascination with a situation involving so many layers of irony. A PR firm involved in a PR disaster over their own name? Seeming blindness to the meaning of the name? Ignorance in thinking they can use the name at a point in our nation’s history that resembles the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s?? But those are the negative reasons this story spread so quickly. What about the reason the company ultimately shut down communication to change their name? A song performed by a pioneering musician with a social message powerful enough to destroy a business in Austin, Texas 75 years after it was first recorded.
Originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, the words of Strange Fruit were made known by American jazz icon Billie Holiday. The song has sold over a million copies and was deemed “Song of the Century” by Time Magazine in 1999. The New York Post’s Samuel Grafton in 1939 said it “reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience.”
Evidently the public relations firm discounted previous notes made by tiny media outlets such as Time Magazine or New York Post. They stated that their business used the phrase in a much different way, thus suggesting that the phrase’s original allusions to lynching in the South throughout the late 19th and early 20th century were metaphorical water under the bridge to a modern-day business deep in the heart of Texas – the state that lied to African-Americans about the effective date of slaves’ emancipation. Excuse me as I digress, getting lost in the outrage that Twitter users across the country felt as they spread the word about this epic PR mishap.
My point is that Grafton’s comment 75 years ago holds true today. Holiday’s performance of these lyrics forced a business to look at themselves in the light of not only those who were paying them but those who were owed an explanation. Instead of quoting the song, I leave you with another quote from Holiday’s New York Post review: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.” For those of us who hope for a better country and world, music is one tool we can always use to instigate change. Please remember that and use it for the better.
Prologue: this is a flasback blog from a few years ago. However, I felt it was only right to publish this as my first post since it was, indeed, my first ever blog writing attempt.
Dreams Come True
by Sarah Rucker
Not only is it the name of a record by Lou Ann Barton, Marcia Ball and Angela Strehli (1990, Antone’s Records,) but it’s my motto these days. In the Fall of 2009 my dream of meeting the great blues and R&B artist Barbara Lynn came true.
As a bit of background information on why this was one of my dreams, I grew up listening to the music of my parents’ childhood and teenage years: Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, the Ronettes, and many other greats of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Flash forward to 2004 when I was attending UT-Austin and decided to enroll in the one elective that didn’t count toward my degree plan: Blues and Social Change taught by the late blues club owner, Clifford Antone. It wasn’t until taking this class that I realized exactly what I wanted to do “when I grew up” – help promote musicians and artists that deserve to be known world wide. I went on to become an assistant to Mr. Antone, helping with his college courses and conducting research for a book project. These two years provided me with the knowledge and passion to begin my career in the arts.
However, this story begins when the American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C. called Texas Folklife for recommendations for their 2009 Homegrown Concert Series. At the top of my list was legendary guitarist and Texas native, Barbara Lynn. About a month later, we received another phone call to let us know that the American Folklife Center’s featured artist for Texas this year would be none other than Miss Barbara Lynn and that Texas Folklife would be the presenting organization. I was equally excited to be given the reigns to the production duties.
On September 21st, I traveled to Beaumont, Texas to Ms. Lynn’s house to conduct an oral history interview. I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Lynn, her mother, one of her daughters and one of her grandsons. Ms. Lynn welcomed me into her home and chatted with me for a couple hours. Her warm spirit was as amazing as her talent as a musician. I returned to Austin to continue preparations for our trip to D.C.
The staff of Texas Folklife was to meet Ms. Lynn and her band mates in D.C. for the program which was taking place on November 18. That morning we also were able to meet Thea Austen, Public Events Coordinator for the American Folklife Center, whom I’d talked on the phone with many times over the past few months. We were honored to met with some Texas political delagates and see the U.S. Senate offices. We then traveled on to the Library of Congress where the Homegrown Concert would take place. The Coolidge Auditorium was beautiful and a crowd much larger than we expected for the D.C. lunch hour came out for Barbara Lynn’s show. Ms. Austen gave the band and our staff a private tour of the Library of Congress and on we went to prepare for Miss Lynn’s next show. As my co-workers and I entered the Kennedy Center to meet up with the band, I heard a docent say, “That must be her entourage.” What an honor!
The grandeur of the Kennedy Center added to the nervousness of speaking onstage, but I introduced “the Empress of Gulf Coast Soal” for the second time then joined the crowd of over 300 people to enjoy the show. As I sat back and listened to the songs I’d been listening to for years, I mentally checked off one of the things on my bucket list.