From the raucous Twenties to the depression era Thirties, jazz was evolving, and reflecting all facets of the culture. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman... all of their stories are here.
Purportedly a film series about music, this is really a series about race relations. Some amazing footage of musicians, dancers, and singers has been captured here including the remarkable Billie Holiday. Every once in a while a song cuts through you though, and tears something in your heart. That's what happened to me when Burns gave us raw footage of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit. What a daring song for 1939. What heart wrenching lyrics by Lewis Allen.
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The photo at the top of this entry is from a memorial here in Duluth, MN, a photo I took this evening in our City by the Lake. Most people associate racial violence as a Southern phenomenon. The memorial here is a remembrance that it can, and did, happen here. In 1920, three black circus workers were lynched downtown by an irate, irrational mob. Hepped up by hearsay, they broke into the jail and brought these men's lives to a sudden end. Historians believe they were almost certainly innocent, but the tragic affair demonstrated that "it can happen here."
Race relations in America are a complicated affair and, like Lewis Allen's evocative lament, so very sad.