This is the last article being posted in honor of Black History Month. Do take a moment to listen to Billie Holiday's sublime rendition here:
“Strange Fruit” was a poem written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high-school teacher from the Bronx, about the lynching of two black men. He published under the pen name Lewis Allan. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, possibly after having seen Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem in 1936 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol/Allan had often asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set “Strange Fruit” to music himself. The piece gained a certain success as a protest song in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden. (Meeropol and his wife later adopted Robert and Michael, sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of espionage and executed by the United States.)
Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Cafe Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her. Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation, but because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing it. She made the piece a regular part of her live performances. Because of the poignancy of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; second, the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore.
- Southern trees bear strange fruit,
- Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
- Black body 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 magnolia 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 tree to drop,
- Here is a strange and bitter crop.
More here. (Note: Abbas, thank you for introducing me to this song.)