Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series “Halloween Weekend Edition,”where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore tunes from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip! 🎃
We have been posting some of the most scary, strange, dark and disturbing songs all month long for Spooktober month and I would be remiss if I didn’t add “Strange Fruit” to the mix. Strange Fruit: The most shocking song of all time? Billie Holiday recorded her iconic version of Strange Fruit on 20 April 1939. Eighty years ago.
“Can you imagine never having heard this song before and realising what the strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees is? That’s something that unfolds in the time of listening, so that image of bulging eyes and twisted mouth jumps out at the listener.” Cultural critic Emily J Lordi is describing the particular power of a song that still shocks 80 years after it was first performed.
On 20 April 1939, the jazz singer Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915) stepped into a studio with an eight-piece band to record Strange Fruit. This jarring song about the horrors of lynching was not only Holiday’s biggest hit, but it would become one of the most influential protest songs of the 20th Century – continuing to speak to us about racial violence today.
This 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.
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.”