The song “Strange Fruit” helped prepare the United Stated for the Civil Rights movement. The lyrics use vivid imagery to critique the treatment of African Americans particularly in the South. The lyrics use a metaphor comparing black bodies lynched and hanging from trees, to a strange fruit growing on trees in the South. This highlights the frequent violence black people endured, and the way that they were viewed and treated. It also emphasizes the lack of value put on black lives in the South during the time period in which the song was written (Margolick). The horrible things that were done to African Americans during the Slavery, Reconstruction, and Great Migration Eras have been discussed in class and have been intellectually digested, but the song “Strange Fruit” helps us to understand these atrocities within our hearts.
Southern trees bear a 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,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Originally Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” as a poem, he wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan. Abel Meeropol was, “a white Jewish schoolteacher from New York City (Margolick).” He attended Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and then taught there for 17 years. In addition to being a school teacher Meeropol was also a poet and social activist (Blair). An author by the name of Gerard Pellison wrote a book about Dewitt Clinton High School, in it he stated that Meeropol “was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge (Blair).” The poem, “Strange Fruit” was a product of this and was written as a protest song against racism and the practice of lynching in the South. Meeropol commented, “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it (Margolick).” Meeropol did not write the poem intending for Billy Holiday to sing it, there were others who actually sang it before her (Margolick). He did however end up bringing the song to Holiday to sing and she made it her own. In fact there are very few people who know or recognize Meeropol as the author of the song (Margolick).
Although Holiday was not the first person to sing “Strange Fruit,” she was the first to record it and the song became popularly associated with her name (Margolick). Meeropol chose Holiday to perform his song because of the way that she had experienced racism within her own life (Margolick). Holiday’s father fought in World War I, was exposed to poisonous gas, and eventually contracted pneumonia (Margolick). Hospitals refused to treat him because he was black and he passed away because he did not receive treatment (Margolick). Holiday’s own experiences seemed to give her the ability to perform the piece in a moving way and really bring it to life (Margolick). Jazz singer Tony Bennett stated, “She didn’t sing anything unless she had lived it,” he said, “When you listen to her, it’s almost like an audio tape of her autobiography (Margolick).” The combination of Abel Meeropol’s chilling lyrics and Holiday’s crooning voice served as an avenue to convey a deep and meaningful message and invoke an emotional reaction (Margolick). I think this is why it was so significant in the time period that it was written in.
This song was released during the Second Great Migration. The Second Great Migration was the mass movement of 5 million African American migrants from the South to the North (Pittman, Migration). A couple of the push factors for this migration were Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation, the racial climate, and white violence in the South (Pittman, Migration). Between the early years of the twentieth century and the middle of it black families had to decide whether they wanted to continue putting up with the brutalities of the South, or if they wanted to try and escape to a new, unknown land (Wilkerson, 9). In the South, “Yard boys (were) scared that a single wrong gesture near the planter’s wife could leave them hanging from an oak tree (Wilkerson, 9).” Whites regularly committed violent acts against blacks in the South, these acts included lynching, rape, and murder (Pittman, Reconstruction). Up until about 1941 the N.A.A.C.P. pressured Congress to pass antilynching legislation (Margolick). The song “Strange Fruit” was significant during this time period because it was an attack on the practice of lynching and the treatment of African Americans in the South. It appealed to the conscience of Americans. This helped to prepare America to face the wrong that it had done and for the Civil Rights movement. Holiday’s pianist Max Waldron put it perfectly “Its like rubbing people’s noses in their own shit (Margolick).” According to the New York Times it was, “a way of moving the tragedy of lynching out of the black press and into the white consciousness (Margolick).”
This deeply moving song uses imagery to vividly depict the horrors of lynching. This was not something that was easy for Americans to hear and some had adverse reactions. The first time Holiday performed the song in public was in 1939 at a club called Café Society in Greenwich Village (Margolick). Holiday was only twenty-four but she already considered herself “a race woman” (Margolick). Café Society was a popular spot for progressive types, and was, “the only truly integrated night club (Margolick).” Even so Holiday was very nervous the first time she performed “Strange Fruit,” because of the controversial nature of it (Margolick). Holiday suffered both verbal and physical abuse from angry nightclub goers (Margolick). This song continues to have a strong effect on Americans today.
The lyrics echo the injustices suffered by African Americans in the past and remind us of the injustices suffered by African Americans to this day. The times may have changed but this song still carries great significance. Last year I took GWSS 251 and we read a book called Blue Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis. Within this book Davis discussed the artist Billy Holiday. The book contained the printed lyrics of the song, I found them intriguing and moving. When we listened to Holiday’s recording in class it really struck a chord with me, which is why I chose to write about it. It helped me to understand the course material on a deeper, more emotional level instead of simply an intellectual one.
Throughout African American history, music was, and continues to be a powerful form of expression. In the book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism Davis states that “Strange Fruit,” “put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary black musical culture (Davis).” “Strange Fruit” won “song of the century” as awarded by New York Times in 1999. It is also a part of the National Recording Registry as compiled by The Library of Congress. Holiday’s mother, concerned about her daughter’s safety in singing such a controversial song asked her “Why are you sticking your neck out?” Holiday responded, “Because it might make things better (Margolick).” “But you’d be dead,” replied her mother (Margolick). “Yeah, but I’ll feel it. I’ll know it in my grave,” Holiday stated (Margolick).
Blair, Elizabeth. “The Strange Story Of The Man Behind ‘Strange Fruit'” NPR. NPR, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.
Davis, Angela Y. Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. New York: Pantheon, 1998. Print.
Margolick, David. “Strange Fruit.” New York Times On The Web. New York Times. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnda. “African Americans and Reconstruction.” African American Studies 101. University of Washington, Seattle. Lecture.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “The Great Migration.” African American Studies 101. University of Washington, Seattle. Lecture.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York, NY: Random House, 2010. Print.