“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies 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 magnolias, 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”
My most memorable time hearing Billy Holiday’s version of Strange Fruits was in a University of Washington History of Jazz class. When the professor played the song I knew I had heard it before, but this time it had a far different impact. I grew up being taught about slavery and racism, so I knew its devastation – although, it never really impacted me the way I feel it should have. I knew racism was awful, but it was something that was only a colossal problem a long time ago. I thought that racists today were a very small percentage of the population. Since first attending college four years ago – which included moving from a Latino dominant high school to a white dominant college – my eyes have been busted wide opened. Racism is everywhere and most of it is really small, but those small acts add up. Arguably, even I am a little bit racist. When I see a ghetto-looking white male walking toward me, I put my guard up. Yes, he is white, but his clothes carry an African American centered stigma with them. The professor explained to the class what the song’s meaning is, and the beautiful, sad blues song became much more. This song protested racism towards African Americans, particularly the lynching of blacks (Histclo.com).
The song was originally written by Abel Meeropol. His song gained success around New York, and was often performed by Meeropol, his wife, and Laura Duncan at Madison Square Garden as a protest song. The song continued to be covered by numerous artists, and has inspired novels, poems, and other creative works.
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 (Lynskey, 2011). Since the song was so powerful, “Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society drew up some rules: Holiday would close with Strange Fruit; 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” (Lynskey, 2011). In 1978, Holiday’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment of the Arts (Margolick, 36-37).
Strange Fruits was first published and recorded during the Civil Rights era by Abel Meeropol in 1936. Meeropol was born in The Bronx, New York. He wrote and first published the song under Bitter Fruit in a Teachers Union publication, and then set the poem to music himself, thus creating Strange Fruit. His inspiration for the song came from Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol has written a countless number of songs and poems, including the Frank Sinatra and Josh White hit, “The House I Live In” (Moore, 2010). He was also at that time a member of the American Communist Party (CP), so in 1941 Meeropol was brought before the witch-hunting Rapp-Coudert committee, which had been set up by the New York State legislature to investigate alleged Communist influence in the public school system. He was asked if Strange Fruit had been commissioned by the CP, or whether he had been paid by the party to write it (Daniels, 2002). Meeropol published his work under the pseudonym of “Lewis Allan” in memory of the names of his two stillborn children (Meeropol, 2003). He later became most well-known for the adoption of Michael and Robert Rosenberg after their parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (the Jewish couple alleged of giving the secret of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union) were executed (Daniels, 2002). Meeropol died on October 29, 1986 at the Jewish Nursing Home in Longmeadow Massachusetts (Meeropol, 2003).
The song was most famously performed and recorded by Eleanora Fagan, professionally known as Billie Holiday. She was an American jazz musician and singer-songwriter with a career spanning nearly thirty years. She was nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and music partner Lester Young. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Holiday was known for her vocal delivery and improvisation skills, which made up for her limited range and lack of formal music education. After a rough childhood, holiday began singing at nightclubs around Harlem. She was heard by producer John Hammond whom singed her to Brunswick Records in 1935. She was a success throughout the 1930s and 1940s; she was booked by mainstream labels such as Columbia Records and Decca Records. By the late 1940s, however, Holiday was overcome with legal troubles and drug abuse, leading to her deteriorated reputation. She was still a successful concert performer in the 1950s, although, Holiday’s bad health, coupled with a string of abusive relationships and ongoing drug and alcohol abuse, caused her voice to whither. Her last album, Lady in Satin, was released in 1958 and received mixed reactions. Holiday died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1959. Holiday received many posthumous awards, such as four Grammy awards, Best Historical Album, and being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973 (Howard, 2013).
The Great Depression during the 1930s and 1940s was disastrous for white Americans and was even more so for African Americans because of the lack of opportunities available. They suffered an unemployment rate of two to three times that of whites. Cotton plunged dangerously from eighteen to five cents a pound. In response, millions of sharecroppers left rural areas for the cities (Fallon, 2013). In the cities, African Americans experienced an unequal division of labor, social isolation, a decline in church attendance, less social visiting (music, singing, chatting with friends), and de jure and de facto segregation among other things. Work for black men was scarce, unstable, and arduous. The job most available to black women was working as a domestic in white households. It was menial and one of the lowest paid jobs in the city, but it was steadier than men’s jobs. What set black women a part from their white counterparts was that they entered the labor force early at about fifteen years old, and they could not afford to retire after marriage (Pittman, lecture 2015).
In Atlanta, Georgia a KKK-like group called the “Black Shirts” marched around the streets, yelling and carrying signs that read, “No jobs for niggers until every white man has a job”. Whites in other cities began to shout, “Niggers back to the cotton fields. City jobs are for white men only” (Fallon, 2013). The way that most African Americans dealt with city life was by making family a priority and supporting one another via mutual aid systems, informal kinship care, othermothering, celebrations, etc. They also taught their children how to survive in a hostile and uncertain environment through religion, cultivating a strong African American identity, and by understanding the color line (Pittman, lecture 2015). Eleanor Roosevelt became aware of the injustices suffered by African Americans and she became a Civil Rights activist. As a result of this, President Franklin Roosevelt began to publicly speak out against lynching and granted influential black leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune access to the White House. These advisors became known as the “Black Cabinet.” FDR’s fireside chats gave African Americans’ optimism (Fallon, 2013).
By 1930, blacks were segregated mostly into ghettos, far away from white neighborhoods. From 1924-1950, realtors were instructed to “never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual who will be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.” The FHA underwriters warned that the presence of even one or two non-white families could undermine real estate values in the new suburbs. These government guidelines were widely adopted by the private industry. Race had long played a role in local real estate practices, for example, in the1930’s, government officials institutionalized a national appraisal system where race was as much a factor in real estate assessment as the condition of the property. “For instance, those communities that were all white, suburban and far away from minority areas, received the highest rating – the color green. Those communities that were all minority or in the process of changing, they got the lowest rating and the color red – they were “redlined.” As a consequence, most of the mortgages went to suburbanizing America, and it suburbanized it racially” (Race the Power of an Illusion). From1934-1962, during the fight for fair housing, $120 billion was spent on new houses in an effort to make cities more livable. During this federal program for “urban renewal” less than 2% of houses went to non-whites, 90% of all housing was destroyed and never replaced, and two-thirds of those displaced were blacks and Latinos. To add salt to the wound, black military could not use their G.I. Bill to get housing loans like their white counterparts. Thus, the New Deal housing program racialized housing, wealth, and opportunity for decades (Pittman, lecture 2015).
Strange Fruit continues to be covered by numerous artists, and has inspired novels, other poems, and other creative works. Strange Fruit has been called the original protest song. It is simple but effective poetry at a time when political protest was not often expressed in musical form. For the first two years after it was written, the song was performed in political circles, at meetings, benefits and house parties. It had a particular impact among the politically aware, artists, musicians, actors, other performers, students, and intellectuals (Daniels, 2002). The song articulated the growing awareness and anger that was found during the rise of the mass Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Despite this political atmosphere, and the virtual banning of the song from the radio, at one point it was number sixteen on the pop charts. During the postwar witch-hunt for Soviet Union supporters, the Holiday’s performance of Strange Fruit became even more difficult. Some clubs refused to allow Holiday to sing what had become her signature song (Daniels, 2002).
The song gained significance when it became popular under Billie Holiday for it was able to reach a wider audience than Meeropol was able to achieve. The song lost significance over time, particularly because African Americans were making gains during the latter part of the Civil Rights Movement. It also lost significance with Billie Holiday’ slipping reputation toward the end of her career. Although, the song is still powerful. It still moves people and it is a healthy reminder of what we should never let happen to any race, again.
Daniels, Peter. “World Socialist Web Site.” “Strange Fruit”: The Story of a Song -. N.p., 8 Feb. 2002. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Fallon, Abby. “Abby Fallon’s Choice Reading Blog.” : African-Americans in the 1930s and 1940s. Blogspot, 5 Mar. 2013. Web. 11 Dec. 2015.
Howard, Patrick. “About Billie Holiday: Biography”. March 13, 2013.
Lynskey, Dorian. 33 Revolutions Per Minute. London: Faber & Faber, 2011. Print.
Margolick, David. Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights. Philadelphia: Running, 2000. Print.
Meeropol, Robert. An Execution in the Family: One Son’s Journey. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003. Print.
Moore, Edwin. “Strange Fruit Is Still a Song for Today.” The Guardian. N.p., 18 Sept. 2010. Web. Pittman, LaShawnDa. Lecture. Autumn 2015.
Race the Power of an Illusion: The House We Live In
“War and Social Upheaval: the American Civil Rights Movement – lynching”. Histclo.com. July 21, 2013.