The story behind “Strange Fruit” is unlike any other. Written by a then-unknown teacher-poet-songwriter, its content was so shocking that even the singer – Billie Holiday – did not want to sing it at first. It became one of the first real protest songs, and one of the most important songs and records of all time. Time magazine called it “The Song of the (20th) Century.”
Abel Meeropol was an English teacher in New York City in the 1930s who, purportedly upon seeing a photograph of two black men lynched in Indiana, wrote a poem about it called “Strange Fruit.” He set the poem to music, and he and his wife performed it as a stinging indictment of the racist South in venues around New York City. When they got the song to Holiday, she felt it would be wrong to record it.
It goes without saying that a black woman dissing the South for lynching blacks in 1939 certainly would not have been very welcome beyond the Mason-Dixon line. And, more than likely, neither would have Meeropol, although he wrote under the pseudonym “Lewis Allan.” Although he was mostly unknown at that time, he was no amateur songwrtiter who got somehow lucky and wrote a great song, as some have suggested. He was a serious songwriter who went on to write several other hit songs, including “The House I Live In,” a hit for Sinatra, and “Apples, Peaches and Cherries” for Peggy Lee.
In “Strange Fruit,” he translated the horror of lynching and racism in America into song by use of a grievous metaphor: the strange fruit hanging from the Southern tree is a lifeless body of a black man lynched.
But although cloaked in metaphor, the actuality is overtly indicated with words such as “the bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.” Its meaning was not a mystery. As such it was considered the first real protest song.
With three verses— no choruses, no bridge – and this poetic but vivid song of lynching – “Strange Fruit” was considered a dangerous song. Billie Holiday did not want to record it at first. She sang mostly standards then, and nothing political. She was not sure it was wise to do this one, as she did not want to alienate her audience.
“I was scared people would hate it,” she said. “The first time I sang it I though it was a mistake.”
Holiday’s label – Columbia – agreed it would be a big mistake to do it, and refused to allow her to record and release it. Perhaps that triggered her change of heart, and rather than be defeated, she rallied on behalf of this song, and would not allow it to go unsung. She ended ended all her shows with the song – usually to a stunned hush – and recorded it for the Commodore label, who released it despite the perceived danger. Indeed, several radio stations banned it, which fanned the flame of the controversy stirred up by a song, and made it a hit. The song helped her become known as one of the greatest vocalists in jazz. She re-recorded it in 1944, and it became one of her two greatest and most beloved signature ballads. The other, which she co-wrote, was “God Bless The Child.”
It was on April 20, 1939 that Billie recorded the song, essentially producing it herself, singing it live with a small ensemble to an arrangement she created in the stuidio. The song quickly became a hit, and one of the best selling records of her career, climbing to number 16 on the charts.
The original recording is simple, with a fairly subdued arrangement. The intro is over a minute long, said to be due to the producer’s attempt to to compensate for the lyrical brevity. Holiday’s version is probably the best known, but over the past 82 years it has been recorded by artists as varied as Lou Rawls, Sting, Tori Amos, Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa, and many others. Today it’s a bonafide standard.
Billie Holiday died in 1959 at only 44. Meeropol gained notoriety, not only from this song and ones that he later wrote for such artists as Frank Sinatra, but by adopting the two young sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the only two people executed for alleged espionage by the U.S. Government during the Cold War.