This song of sadness, solidarity and protest, along with the history of its creation and performance, exemplifies the power of art to focus dissent and foster change.
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. Meeropol and his wife Anne are also notable because they adopted Robert and Michael Rosenberg, the orphaned children of the executed communists Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
“Strange Fruit” was first performed at a New York teachers' union meeting and was brought to the attention of the manager of Cafe Society, a popular Greenwich Village nightclub, who introduced Billie Holiday to the writer. Holiday's record label refused to record the song but Holiday persisted and recorded it on a specialty label instead. The song was quickly adopted as the anthem for the anti-lynching movement. The haunting lyrics and melody made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to continue to ignore the Southern campaign of racist terror. (According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, between 1882 and1968, mobs lynched 4,743 persons in the United States, over 70 percent of them African Americans.)
The conversation about Strange Fruit continues to this day, still painful and relevant:
- Documentary film by Joel Katz shown on PBS Independent Lens series in 2003
- Socialist review of the documentary, which addresses Meerpol's membership in the Communist Party and how it influenced his writing, as well as adding a class/labor analysis of the filmmaker's choices
- Billie Holiday and Strange Fruit in the 21st Century: One Note of Defiance
- Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Cafe Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights – book review
- Teacher's lesson plan
- An ugly legacy lives on, 2000 New York Times article about an exhibit of photographs of lynchings
by Alexander Billet / September 28th, 2007