Strange Fruit is still a song for today
by Edwin Moore
Saturday 18 September 2010 10.00 BST
Made famous by Billie Holiday, Abel Meeropol's lyrics offer a powerful plea for racial tolerance that is no less relevant today
On the last day of 1999, Time magazine selected Strange Fruit as its choice for the best song of the passing century. The lyric is not as well as known as it should be, but it carries a passionate message for all time with its vibrant opposition to those who preach racial or religious hatred and intolerance in the US.
It is still a common assumption that Billie Holiday wrote the song; indeed her authorship was asserted in her 1956 ghostwritten autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, but the work was ghostwritten to an extent she would later acknowledge in fine laconic manner: "I ain't never read that book." The original source of the song is a poem called Strange Fruit, written in the 30s by the young Jewish poet and communist Abel Meeropol (who also wrote under the name of Lewis Allan, the first names given to his stillborn children).
The poem was inspired by a photograph of the lynching of two young black men in Indiana. Copies of such photographs were very popular in the American south, and the images can be easily found on the web. One particularly disturbing example shows a mother and her child hanging from a bridge. In many cases, the hanged victims are surrounded by smiling white people waving at the camera. They sometimes have their children with them. The horrible truth is that in parts of the south in the early 20th century, the hanging of black people in public was a family occasion; lynching was part of the social fabric. "I wrote Strange Fruit," said Meeropol, "because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it."
Meeropol recognised that he had written something out of the ordinary and turned the poem into a song, which quickly became popular in New York and was sung at Madison Square Gardens by the black singer Laura Duncan. In April 1939, Meeropol visited a New York club frequented by Holiday called Cafe Society. This club, founded by another Jewish socialist, Barney Josephson, has been described as bringing about a "milestone" in American integration between black and white in its brave efforts to create an environment in which white and black could mix socially.
Josephson introduced the two and Meeropol sang the song for Holiday. A few days later, Meeropol returned to the club to hear Holiday sing his masterwork: "She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation of the song which could jolt the audience out of its complacency anywhere. This was exactly what I wanted the song to do and why I wrote it. Billie Holiday's styling fulfilled the bitterness and the shocking quality I had hoped the song would have. The audience gave a tremendous ovation."
Released in 1939, the record eventually sold over a million copies and became one of the most influential songs of all time, thanks to its rare combination of potent lyrics, a decent melodic line and a beautiful voice. Protest song became commercial, as well as being an expression of idealism: the song became a standard theme for the burgeoning civil rights movement, a song that previously non-political citizens could find themselves humming: just what Meeropol hoped would happen.
Meeropol also wrote (with Earl Robinson) the civil rights anthem The House I Live In, which was used for a 1945 11-minute movie of the same name, in which Frank Sinatra sings about religious tolerance to white children. The effect of Meeropol's song in this brief movie – the song enjoyed a brief resurgence in the US after 9/11 – was somewhat lessened by the removal of a stanza celebrating racial harmony (the reference to white and black living side by side was also cut from Sinatra's first recording of the song). The movie's distributor felt America was not yet ready for an explicit message on racial harmony. A furious Meeropol had to be escorted from the cinema when he saw what been done to his song.
In 1953, Meeropol and his wife Anne adopted Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's two children after their parents' execution for treason. Meeropol's significance to the American civil rights movement has been underplayed; it remains too controversial to give due credit to a communist.
Jazz writer Leonard Feather called Strange Fruit "the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism". In these troubled times for America, when the hate merchants are selling their malignant wares throughout the media, the country needs to remember its true music, the songs (from Irving Berlin to Bob Dylan) that have endeared America to the world with their defiant and joyous response to injustice. New York in particular should remember that inspired Bronx teacher, and listen again to Holiday sing his great song:
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 trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.