Strange Fruit

Album: The Billie Holiday Story (1939)
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  • This was written by a white, Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from New York City named Abel Meeropol, who was outraged after seeing a photograph of a horrific lynching in a civil-rights magazine. The photo was a shot of two black men hanging from a tree after they had been lynched in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. The two men are the "Strange Fruit."
  • The original title was "Bitter Fruit," and the song started as a poem Meeropol wrote. The poem was published in the January 1937 issue of a union publication called The New York Teacher. After putting music to it, the song was performed regularly at various left-wing gatherings. Meeropol's wife and friends from the local teachers' union would sing it, but it was also performed by a black vocalist named Laura Duncan, who once performed it at Madison Square Garden.
  • This was performed by a quartet of black singers during an antifascist fundraiser at a show put on by Robert Gordon, who was also working on the floor show at a club called Cafe Society. Billie Holiday had just quit Artie Shaw's band and was the featured attraction at the club, and Gordon brought the song to her attention and suggested she sing it. Holiday played to an integrated audience at the Cafe Society, and her version popularized the song.
  • Meeropol made headlines when he adopted the orphan sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their parents were executed for treason in 1953. He also wrote the lyrics to the song "The House I Live In," which was recorded by Frank Sinatra, as well as "Beloved Comrade," which was often sung in tributes to Franklin Roosevelt, and "Apples, Peaches, and Cherries," which was recorded by Peggy Lee. Meeropol died in 1986.
  • In 1971, Meeropol said, "I wrote 'Strange Fruit' because I hate lynching, I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it."

    Victims of lynchings were people who were marginalized from society, and most were black men. They were lynched for a variety of reasons, often because they did something to upset a prominent member of the community, who would then organize a mob to track down and kill the victim. Many times, the victims broke no laws but were lynched out of jealousy, hatred or religious difference. In America, lynchings were more common in the South, but could happen anywhere.

    In a lynching, people could be hanged, burned, dragged behind cars and killed in a number of different ways. Most lynchings were carried out by small, clandestine groups, but some were public spectacles. The one that inspired this song was in front of about 5,000 people in Marion, Indiana. Extra excursion cars were set up on trains so people could come to watch.
  • In her autobiography, Holiday claimed she wrote this, which was not true. Toward the end of her life, she had a lot of drug problems and made some unreliable statements.
  • Meeropol often had other people put his poems to music, but with this he did it himself.
  • Columbia Records, Holiday's label, refused to release this. She had to release it on Commodore Records, a much smaller label.
  • This was always the last song Holiday played at her concerts. It signaled that the show was over. (Thanks to Gode Davis, director of the film American Lynching for his help with these Songfacts. You can learn more about this song in David Margolick's book Strange Fruit.)
  • In 1999, Time magazine voted this the Song of the Century. When the song first came out it was denounced by the same magazine as "A piece of musical propaganda."
  • Nona Hendryx would often perform this song, adding in parts of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I Have A Dream" speech. Hendryx told us: "It's a cathartic performance for me to do that song. It's like healing, and healing's what happens. And hopefully it can reach the ears and the minds and the hearts of people who are still feeling any bigotry, hatred, racism, to understand that this was a painful time in our history, in our past and in America. And that we need to move on from there."

Comments: 9

  • Kayo from Spring Hill, FlWhat does this song have to do with a citizenship class in thre UK? As Nona Hendry stated,"This was a powerful. ( and I add a shameful, tragic time) in our history, in our past and we need to move on from there." She was right. Move on. Dwelling on this issue which is in our far past serves no purpose except to further divide us. It's serving as excuse for further violence. Look to the future.
  • Irina from BerkeleyI think it's accurate to include Billie Holiday as co-writer. She transformed the melody of "Strange Fruit. Records indicate she did not resonate with the original melody written by Meeropol, and she and her accompanist re-wrote/transformed the melody. Also, when someone writes about something that is not part of their experience, and someone who is closer to that experience transforms that song, it's important the person transforming it be acknowledged as co-writer. I think it's important we respect and acknowledge Billie Holiday's co-writing of this powerful song, whether or not Meeropol acknowledged this.
  • Issy from West Yorkshire, UkI think this song is very inspirational. We are currently working on this song in citizenship at my school and I love it! May billie holiday rest in peace.
  • Mike from Kansas City, MoAbel Meeropol and Lewis Allan are the same. Lewis Allan was a pseudonym. Meeropol (as "Allan") wrote the poem first and later set it to music.

    Quote from:

    While many people assume that the song "Strange Fruit" was written by Holiday herself, it actually began as a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from the Bronx who later set it to music. Disturbed by a photograph of a lynching, the teacher wrote the stark verse and brooding melody under the pseudonym Lewis Allan in the late 1930s.
  • Jim from Milwaukee, WiCassandra Wilson recorded a beautiful version of it on her "New Moon Daughter" album.
  • Garry from Anchorage, AkThe song hit #16 on the charts in July, 1939. Samuel Grafton of the New York Post had the best review of it. "This is about a phonograph record which has obsessed me for two days. It is called Strange Fruit and it will, even after the tenth hearing, make you blink and hold to your chair. Even now, as I think of it, the short hair on the back of my neck tightens and I want to hit somebody. I know who, too. If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise."
    Garry Gamber, Anchorage, AK
  • John C from Ft Lauderdale, FlJanetlee, many many artists have recorded versions of this song. PBS aired in Jan 2005 a documentary about how influential "Strange Fruit" has been toward civil rights movements since it's been written. Here is a link to their website about it:
    During the closing credits, they gave a looooooong list of musicians who recorded it.
  • Angelica from La Puente, CaIn her autobiography Lady Sings the blues, Billie claims that the song was originally a poem written by Lewis Allen, and that she, Allen, and her accompanist Sonny White collaborated on the music (all this took place during her stint at Cafe Society). This book was written by a ghostwriter though, and many of the stories were exaggerated to sell copies and to sensationalize Billie's reputation. While it is true that Billie made many false claims herself, I thought i'd just clear this one up.
  • Janetlee from Panama City, FlThis song has always been hauntingly beautiful to me and Lady Day did it so well. I'd love to hear other versions if it has been recorded by any other artist.
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