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Bettye LaVette on Why She’s Singing ‘Strange Fruit’ Now

The R&B veteran has released a cover of Billie Holiday’s 1939 protest song after the police killing of George Floyd. “We keep telling this story over and over and over,” she s…

Bettye LaVette, photographed at her home in West Orange, New Jersey.

Celeste Sloman/"The Washington Post"/Getty Images

Bettye LaVette spent the morning doing yard work at her home in West Orange, New Jersey. After that, she exercised, and now she’s thinking about dinner. “I have never seen so much repetition in my life,” the singer, 74, says of her life in isolation. LaVette has been touring since since her teens, when she scored her first R&B hit with 1963’s “My Man — He’s a Lovin’ Man,” on Atlantic Records. In the Sixties, she toured with Otis Redding and James Brown, who was a huge fan, but her career fizzled out toward the end of that decade, going through a series of twists and turns — from a classic album getting shelved to her manager getting killed by the mob. “Every conceivable thing that could happen,” she told Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Bernstein in 2018, “and I didn’t get a chance to cause any of it!”

LaVette’s career has surged in recent years thanks to a series of moving covers albums, most recently Things Have Changed, which featured her dramatic reinterpretations of Bob Dylan songs. Her latest is Blackbirds, produced by Steve Jordan, where she sings songs by her favorite women in jazz, blues, and R&B, from Nina Simone to Dinah Washington.

The first song she’s releasing from the album is a cover of Billie Holiday’s classic protest ballad “Strange Fruit.” The song originated as a 1937 poem by Abel Meeropol, inspired by a photograph of a lynching in Marion, Indiana, just a few years earlier; Holiday’s haunting 1939 rendition became one of the key songs of the civil rights movement. LaVette decided to push up the release date of her cover of “Strange Fruit” after the police killing of George Floyd this May. Here, LaVette tells us why this song is as relevant today as it ever was. She also details why she cried watching the recent protests, how she’s spending her time off the road, and why she’s optimistic about the future.

How did you decide to move up the release date for your version of “Strange Fruit”?
It was coming out later. We were going to release three singles, [before] this thing happened in Minneapolis. I watch the news all day long, and the language started to change from “unarmed black man” to “lynching.” It was a long time before I heard that word, and when I did, I said, “This could be tantamount to a lynching.” So I called the [record] company and told them that it seemed like we keep telling this story over and over and over. People started singing about it in the Thirties.

I hooked those things together in my head, that this was the same conversation. But as I said before, that isn’t what we had planned. From the beginning, I was hesitant for a long while. I said, “I don’t want it to look like I’m being opportunistic.” And then I talked to several people I admired, and they said, “Maybe if you had gone and recorded it for this purpose…” but I already had it recorded and it was already coming out next. We just pushed it. So that’s how that happened. And it’s gloomy enough and eerie enough for what’s going on. It’s just so stark.

Do you remember when you first heard the song?
I’ve known it for a very long time. My manager wanted me to hear Billie Holiday, because one of my grievances was that I didn’t sound pretty, and I didn’t sound like a girl. He said, “You want to hear not pretty, and not like a girl?”

I never had the occasion to [cover] it. It would bring any mood down. But in the right context, it’s like a history lesson, almost. That’s really the way I’m looking at the album. I think if I was just choosing music, I probably would have chosen other tunes. But these tunes were very, very important at the time they came out — and they’re important to me, because I didn’t know one thing when I first heard most of them. I didn’t know that there were black women that sang anything other than gospel music [when I was young]. Then when I saw these women on television, I said, “I could do that!”

What was what was going through your head when you watched the reports of George Floyd’s killing and the protests that have followed?
Oh, I think something different goes through your head if you’re black. I don’t know what it would feel like if it happened to me, or one of mine. But as it’s been happening, it’s been like, “There they go again.” Now that they’re chronicling it, it’s happened more times than I had even imagined. I like the way this conversation is going, though. I love the way that the tenor of the conversation all over the world has changed. And everybody is responding to it well — except our esteemed leader [Donald Trump].

One day last week, they were showing these people marching in Iowa. They had all five of the black people who live in Iowa marching with them. [My husband] Kevin said, “Come and look at this!” I walked in the living room and I just broke down crying. He said, “I thought you’d be happy.” I said, “That’s why I’m crying.  I’ve never seen that before.” Of course, I’ve seen young college kids, when I was that age, they were marching for various things, but I’ve never seen, in a place like Iowa, that many white people marching and saying something like “Black Lives Matter.” I was just so impressed. Really, all I could do was cry. I was just so happy.

Other than “Strange Fruit,” what other songs meant the most to you to sing on the new album?
Probably “Blackbird.” Because most Americans don’t know that the Brits called their women birds. When I recorded the tune, I started doing it on the stage, I would explain that. I said, “That’s what Paul [McCartney] is talking about: a black girl.” She was standing on a picnic table in a park, singing — the stories go on and on — I really don’t know how it came to him, but I knew what it meant. Having a chance to sing it at the Hollywood Bowl, which is the first time that I did it, and I was just just standing there and the words just meant so much to me. I am standing at the Hollywood Bowl and I’m like, “All of my life, I’ve waited for this moment.”

How has your life been since the virus hit?
I’m in West Orange, New Jersey. I’ve been in the house since February 3rd, my last gig was on February 1st. And I had this terrible cough when I came home from my last gig. I just said, “Well, I’m just gonna stay in.” And, believe it or not, I didn’t know I was a part of the elderly. I knew I was old. I said, “Everybody, I’m old, but I’ve never used the world elderly!”

I don’t think of you that way at all.
I didn’t either! When I started to accept [myself] into the elderly club, I became frightened to go out, because I haven’t been in any crowd of people since then. I was afraid to be in a crowd of people. I have never seen so much repetition in my life, you know. I don’t like to record and I don’t like to rehearse because of the repetition. So do you know how I am suffering? I have the attention span of a small child. Just doing the same thing over and over again. I was talking with my manager on the phone, and we got ready to hang up. I said, “Well, I think iI’ll sit over in this other chair today!”

What have you been doing all day?

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Bettye Lavette (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

LaVette in the Sixties.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There’s [all kinds] of things to do in a yard, especially if you got a big one, and I’ve got a plant everywhere that you can look. Something came in my yard last night and ate all my begonias. I told my grandson, “Nobody has come in, I’m just cooking all this food.” I cook a lot of different things, but I cook them in small increments. So I had little bitty ears of corn, little petite steaks, Cornish hens, everything was small. But I wanted the doing of it. I wanted to do it.

Can you tell me more about the concept of your album?
Well, the concept is that of the is that of the bridge I came across on. There’s a segment of women, the women who were the first rhythm and blues singers. It’s hard for people to distinguish rock & roll, blues, and rhythm and blues. They’re all three different things. I usually just give the snap answer that, “All you can do to blues is cry, but you can cry and dance to rhythm and blues.” And I am a rhythm and blues singer. The other ones would be Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington, Big Maybelle, Billie Holiday. These people were not jazz singers. They were rhythm and blues singers. And so I’ve done tunes by all of those people. Plus one by Nina Simone and Della Reese. It was fascinating to know that Big Maybelle wrote “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” I had attributed that to Jerry Lee Lewis. Oh, I was so excited! It is my husband who knows and likes entertainers and listens to them. I don’t.

You’re not a music fanatic?
I am not a music enthusiast at all. If you really wanted me to get really bored fast, [try] listening to a bunch of people do the work I do. Maybe when I was younger, there were certainly all kinds of people I liked and listened to continuously. But then after I figured it all out, [I didn’t need] to listen to them anymore. I just found that as I got older, there are some things that I would enjoy listening to, but not repetitively. My husband listens to to music. I mean, it’s not interesting to me. When something happens that’s really exciting, like when Tina [Turner] won a Grammy, you know, things like that excite me, but just to sit and listen to everything that she recorded?

Your Dylan album from a couple years ago was fantastic.
I so enjoyed doing that. You know, Universal is the biggest company in the world, right? So, at the time, the whole thing came about, I did not have a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out of. So I said, “I have to make this work.” But I was less than happy when they said, “What we want you to do…”

I get the biggest record company in the world at last, and I had to sing 12 Bob Dylan songs! But Steve Jordan was the first black producer I’ve had in a very long time, a black producer who was born and raised in Harlem. He sees and hears what I see and hear, and he is on the Bob Dylan album. I said, “There’s no doubt that he’s one of the greatest lyricists in the world. But I don’t need to say everything four times.” [Dylan] says everything four times. He doesn’t repeat it. He says it another way, but it’s the same thing. So I said, let me take the stronger thing and use it.

And Steve was with me all of the way, and then Larry Campbell, who had been with Bob Dylan for so very long, was very excited about being able to do the tunes different than he had ever done them before. That made me even more excited ….  because [Dylan] complains about everything. All of the tunes are nothing but complaints. But I said, “Somebody’s got to finish this shit.” I said, “If you want the argument finished, have it with a black woman. So I’ll just finish these arguments that he started.”

It turned out to just be so much fun to do, changing everything around, [but] maintaining what he is as a writer. I probably spoke his lyrics more clearly than any of his fans have ever heard them. So it turned out to be a completely pleasing thing.

Did you have a lot of a lot of plans that you had to completely scrap due to the virus?
Yeah, it would be called July, August, September, October, November, December. And now we’re looking at January. That first week of May, I was being inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, I was going to the New Orleans Jazz Festival, and the new CD was coming out — all that in the first week of May. Well, shows you what the coronavirus thinks about my little happenings!

Everybody I know, they’re scrambling around. I have a friend who books theater shows. These things are booked for like six months at a time, and he’s the head of the company, and he’s had to go back, and they’re trying to rebook all these shows. It’s just a wreck.

David Crosby told us that he’s afraid he’s going to lose his house if he has to cancel his fall tour.
We’re set up okay for the moment. But this moment is going to be long. Kevin is really good financially with watching everything, but we don’t have any savings as savings go. The money that we have usually in the bank is what we had to pay the bills with. You know, it isn’t like our retirement plan or some kind of shit. I think somebody should start a movement where everybody refuses to leave their house.

I mean, everybody. I don’t care if I owe you $80 million. Nobody leave their house. This is this is such a drastic time. We have someone who is willing to be drastic, but it’s drastic for all the wrong things, and it’s not for the good of us all.

If they start booking shows again, would you go out? Or stay home until there’s a vaccine?
Oh, I don’t know that I will stay home until there’s a vaccine, but I’m definitely going to stay home until they tell me more than they’re telling me today.

It’s also tough because a lot of the great live acts are older.
We’re the elderly! Everybody that people would take a chance on going to see are the elderly, and we ain’t going to take a chance on you!

We know so little. There’s absolutely no way you can sing. Maybe you can sing jazz without opening your mouth. I just can’t see it. It took years to snuff out smallpox, and it took 75 years for us to get polio. But look at what happened in that time. [Now,] a brilliant mind in Uruguay can come up with something and have it on your desk in this in the next 10 minutes. So I have great faith in everybody. Everybody is trying to glean whatever information they can from each other. This is very, very, very, very bad. It’s the worst thing since since World War II.  But I think that just like World War II and space exploration — a lot of good things came out of it.

Is there anything else you want to tell your fans right now?
Oh, I just want everybody to remember that we’re all in this together. That’s the only way we’re going to get out of it. I do know that if we stick together, and everybody will do what they’re supposed to do, the leader — no, I can’t say leader. I cannot say that word, take that back. I’ve never been so exasperated with one individual in my life. How could this man be such an idiot? I have every faith in us, and I am not a faithful person. I’m not an optimist per se, but just based upon the things I’ve seen us do before, I believe that we can rally and come together.