By Stuart Mitchner
And what curious flower or fruit
Will grow from that conspiring root?
Those lines are from the poet Elizabeth Bishop’s reimagining of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Bishop has admitted that she was hoping someone would compose tunes for her suite “Songs for a Colored Singer” (an acceptable title in the 1940s). “I think I had Billie Holiday in mind,” she said in a 1966 interview. “I put in a couple of words just because she sang big words so well — ‘conspiring root,’ for instance.”
The Bishop-Holiday connection was pointed out by Paul Alexander in Bitter Crop: The Heartache and Triumph of Billie Holiday’s Last Year, the subject of last week’s column. In fact, a misprint in that article (“Back” for “Black”) is the reason I’m returning to Holiday and rereading Bishop with particular attention to “The Man-Moth,” a great New York poem inspired by a newspaper misprint for “mammoth.” more