If I had been aware of this song, and I probably was, I don’t remember being really aware of it until I heard it in a really odd setting: some guy – sorry, no idea of his name – who ‘opened’ for Ralph McTell at a concert in the 1980s (St David’s Hall, Cardiff) included this song in his small set. It was his speciality, I think, taking old Great American Songbook standards, and singing them in an semi- folkie setting, to an exquisitely handled acoustic guitar. So, behind the song, the guitar work was all minor sevenths and ninths etc; he brought all the melancholy he could from it; and it was beautiful. And then I heard Ella Fitzgerald’s version of it.
I’m not sure that I would have liked Cole Porter. I’m not even sure where I’ve picked up these impressions, that I have the feeling that he was all urbane wit, cleverness and musical talent sold to glittering slick city hedonism, etc. (Envious, moi?) And, just gleaning bits of myth and trivia from various websites about the origin of this song, one story goes that in one of these very same high class uptown society party soirees, someone challenged Cole Porter to come up with a song employing these random words ‘miss Otis regrets’; a more credible variant of the story suggests that he was challenged to write off the cuff a kind of parody of a popular country and western style song . Whatever, it’s quite weird to think of the genesis of this song as something a bit show-offy, improvisational, almost throwaway. Because, however it started, it has certainly become something else.
How far Cole Porter influenced the development and evolution of the song’s popularity, who sang it and when, I don’t really know. Let’s forget about him for a moment and just think of the song. It’s interesting that the best versions of it have been by black singers: no, that’s naive –it was inevitable, because the persona of the song is understood to be of the servant class –inevitably Afro American in the 1930s ‘society’ America. Porter (sorry, I said I wouldn’t mention him) put the song in the mouth of a black butler in one of his lesser known musicals. In 1934 Ethel Waters recorded a still poignant version of the song. Ella didn’t record her version until two decades later, and it is part of her classic ‘Cole Porter songbook’ recordings. More about this in a moment.
When I say ‘interesting’, perhaps I’m thinking of the fact that some of the strange and incongruous resonances of the song have more startling poignancy coming from African-American lips . The premise of the song, perhaps hilariously comic in the original cocktail-fuelled setting of that Manhattan dinner party, is that the seduced and wronged woman driven to jealous murder is not some simple country girl from a cowboy story, but –we assume –some sophisticated high society lady; the sordid tale is not blazed as society scandal, but modestly narrated by a faithfully formal servant as ‘excuse’ for the lady’s non-appearance at a social engagement (!); and the punishment for her crime is not some expensive legal battle fought on her behalf by city attorneys, but an ignominious lynching. And there, of course, in that particular incongruity resides the particular potency of hearing these words from a black American female voice. ‘Strange Fruit’ in an affluent white society setting.
It’s become fashionable, I reckon, to regard Ella Fitzgerald’s voice as just a little bit too controlled; I hear people suggesting that Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holliday are far more ‘authentic’ jazz voices, but I’m OK with Ella’s ‘control’ –it’s a thing of beauty –she could scat-sing with the best of them when she wanted to, but she brought an extraordinary sensitivity to some songs that not everybody could have done. Like this one – and while most of her Cole Porter recordings have sumptuous orchestral accompaniments, this one has a single piano, as if somehow to accentuate its dark charm –those few simple, repetitive verses, the ’spareness’ of the tragic tale in its ‘formal’ narrative. That’s all. Madam.