Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Rhythm & Blues” Edition, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore psychedelic tunes from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit Album: The Billie Holiday Story 1939
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Billie Holiday. Although her voice was small and raspy, she interpreted songs from Tin Pan Alley with a rhythmic and melodic inventiveness that transformed the tunes into highly personal expressions.
She made her first recordings at the age of 18 in 1933 and her last in 1959 shortly before her death. In between those years she changed the art of jazz and pop singing. She influenced everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to contemporary singers Madeleine Peyroux and Norah Jones.
Strange fruit was written by a white, Jewish schoolteacher and union activist from New York City named Abel Meeropol, who was outraged after seeing a photograph of a horrific lynching in a civil-rights magazine. The photo was a shot of two black men hanging from a tree after they had been lynched in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. The two men are the “Strange Fruit.”
The original title was “Bitter Fruit,” and the song started as a poem Meeropol wrote. The poem was published in the January 1937 issue of a union publication called The New York Teacher. After putting music to it, the song was performed regularly at various left-wing gatherings. Meeropol’s wife and friends from the local teachers’ union would sing it, but it was also performed by a black vocalist named Laura Duncan, who once performed it at Madison Square Garden.
This was performed by a quartet of black singers during an antifascist fundraiser at a show put on by Robert Gordon, who was also working on the floor show at a club called Cafe Society. Billie Holiday had just quit Artie Shaw’s band and was the featured attraction at the club, and Gordon brought the song to her attention and suggested she sing it. Holiday played to an integrated audience at the Cafe Society, and her version popularized the song.
Meeropol made headlines when he adopted the orphan sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their parents were executed for treason in 1953. He also wrote the lyrics to the song “The House I Live In,” which was recorded by Frank Sinatra, as well as “Beloved Comrade,” which was often sung in tributes to Franklin Roosevelt, and “Apples, Peaches, and Cherries,” which was recorded by Peggy Lee. Meeropol died in 1986.
In 1971, Meeropol said, “I wrote ‘Strange Fruit’ because I hate lynching, I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”
Victims of lynchings were people who were marginalized from society, and most were black men. They were lynched for a variety of reasons, often because they did something to upset a prominent member of the community, who would then organize a mob to track down and kill the victim. Many times, the victims broke no laws but were lynched out of jealousy, hatred or religious difference. In America, lynchings were more common in the South, but could happen anywhere.
In a lynching, people could be hanged, burned, dragged behind cars and killed in a number of different ways. Most lynchings were carried out by small, clandestine groups, but some were public spectacles. The one that inspired this song was in front of about 5,000 people in Marion, Indiana. Extra excursion cars were set up on trains so people could come to watch.In her autobiography, Holiday’s cover of this song made it more mainstream.
Meeropol often had other people put his poems to music, but with this he did it himself.
Columbia Records, Holiday’s label, refused to release this. She had to release it on Commodore Records, a much smaller label.
This was always the last song Holiday played at her concerts. It signaled that the show was over. (Thanks to Gode Davis, director of the film American Lynching for his help with these Songfacts. You can learn more about this song in David Margolick’s book Strange Fruit.
In 1999, Time magazine voted this the Song of the Century. When the song first came out it was denounced by the same magazine as “A piece of musical propaganda.”
Nona Hendryx would often perform this song, adding in parts of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Hendryx told us: “It’s a cathartic performance for me to do that song. It’s like healing, and healing’s what happens. And hopefully it can reach the ears and the minds and the hearts of people who are still feeling any bigotry, hatred, racism, to understand that this was a painful time in our history, in our past and in America. And that we need to move on from there.”