Southern trees bear a 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.
These 90 words are arguably the most chilling in any song ever recorded. Strange Fruit, a song about a lynching in 1930s America, reached a modest #16 on the U.S. Billboard Charts in 1939. At the time Roosevelt was in power and America was still in the throes of the Great Depression. This was the same year as Over the Rainbow, Moonlight Serenade and Begin the Beguine. Today I want to look at this incredible song and the fascinating story behind it. It wasn’t written for her and has been covered by artists as varied as Nina Simone, Sting, Robert Wyatt, UB40, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Tori Amos, but the song really belongs to one woman – Billie Holiday. As they say on The X Factor, she really owned that song.
This is such a graphic song, painting a picture of bucolic simplicity. This image, however, is shattered by the bulging eyes and twisted mouth. The tree, normally a symbol of life, here bears a terrible fruit. When she sang it you could see the black body hanging from the Southern tree, its blood feeding the roots. This is indeed a bitter crop. At one performance Holiday was asked what a pastoral scene was:
“It means when the crackers are killing the niggers. It means when they take a little nigger like you and snatch off his nuts and shove them down his goddam throat. That’s what it means. That’s what they do. That’s a goddamn pastoral scene.”
One of the most surprising aspects of this song is that it was not written by an African-American, but by a white Jewish schoolteacher with communist leanings from New York, Abel Meeropol, who taught in the Bronx, wrote thousands of songs poems libretti, plays, scripts, but he will undoubtedly be remembered for this song. His pen name, Lewis Allan, was in memory of two stillborn sons.
In 1937 Meeropol saw this shocking photograph of a lynching in a magazine:
The photo, which was taken on August 7, 1930, captures the double lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Lynchings were meant to be a public spectacle. This was a brutal form of social control; the bodies would be left hanging as a warning to others. By the time of the Marion incident, lynching was less prevalent than it had been at the turn of the century. But there were still five or six a year, and they were still very present in black consciousness. Despite attempts to outlaw it, no legislation was ever passed – it was always filibustered away by southern congressman.
Shipp and Smith had been arrested the night before, and charged with robbing and murdering a white factory worker, Claude Deeter, and raping his white girlfriend, Mary Ball. A large crowd, armed with sledgehammers, broke into the jail, beat the two men and then hanged them. Police officers among the posse cooperated in the lynching. A third person, 16-year-old James Cameron was luckier, narrowly escaping Shipp and Smith’s fate thanks to an unidentified member of the mob who announced that he had nothing to do with the rape or murder. Cameron later stated in interviews that Shipp and Smith were, in fact, guilty of shooting and killing Deeter, but Mary Ball later testified that she had not been raped.
The photo had been taken by the photographer Lawrence Beitler. Meeropol said that it had haunted him for days. The revulsion it provoked led him to write the poem, which was published in 1937 in a union magazine, The New York Teacher. He later set the poem music and it became quite a popular protest song in the New York area.
We need to put Strange Fruit in its musical context. There was before the song, and indeed after it, a tradition of white audiences enjoying forms of black music that had been filtered to appeal more to mainstream tastes. Swing, the most popular musical genre of the 1930s had its origins in African-American jazz and composers like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin liked to incorporate elements of the “black sound” into their work. We can see this later on with The Stones, The Beatles and Eric Clapton who made artists like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf Chuck Berry and Screaming Jay Hawkins “safe” for white audiences.
But in Strange Fruit Meeropol chose to send an uncompromising message. This was a militant, angry song. There had been songs that had alluded to racism. The Gershwin musical Porgy and Bess, or the Fats Waller song Black and Blue come to mind. However, none were so in-your-face as Strange Fruit.
Billie Holiday was born Eleanora Fagan on April 7, 1915, in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father, Clarence Holiday never married her mother, Sadie Fagan, and he would eventually abandon the family altogether. Holiday grew up in grinding poverty. At the age of ten, she was raped by a neighbour, and ended up at The House of the Good Shepherd, a facility for wayward black girls. She began working at the age of twelve, scrubbing the floors of a local brothel. It was here that she heard the music of Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith. At the age of 14 she was jailed for prostitution. Holiday vowed not to back to this way of life and sought work in local nightclubs as a dancer or a singer. She soon discovered that her melancholy singing style could bring customers to tears. Despite the power of her voice to move an audience Holiday’s chaotic lifestyle meant that she was unable to hold down a job and she moved from one nightclub to another. Holiday was no stranger to racism. She was singing with Artie Shaw’s band at the swanky Lincoln Hotel in New York. Given that the hotel was named after the president who emancipated the slaves, it is ironic that owner of the hotel objected to Billie sitting at the bar or mixing with customers, and demanded that a she only use the tradesmen’s entrance and the freight elevator.
In 1939 Holiday left the group and began to perform regularly at Café Society, a haven for liberal intellectuals, college students, music aficionados, and the political left in general. The club, which was located in a basement in Greenwich Village, was owned by Barney Josephson and had been inaugurated in December 1938. The main room held about 220 people. Josephson wanted an American version of the political cabarets he had seen in Europe. Cafe Society was the first nightclub in a white neighbourhood to welcome customers of all races. Even the legendary Cotton Club in Harlem, where Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne and Cab Calloway all performed, was a segregated place. Occasionally a black celebrity would be admitted but even then they would generally be given the worst tables. Josephson, by contrast, had a clear vision:
“I wanted a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front. There wasn’t, so far as I know, a place like it in New York or in the whole country.”
It was a transgressive place. Josephson wanted to showcase African American talent. But he also wanted to satirise café society; black customers were given the best seats, while the waiters greeted patrons while dressed in rags. Their advertising slogan was: “Café Society: the wrong place for Right people.”
Josephson heard the song and suggested that Holiday sing it. Given the nature of the lyrics Holiday was a bit reticent about performing it in public, but she finally agreed to do it. It was January 1939. It would be the song that she would close her set with. From the very first time that she sang it she established a ritual. As she prepared to sing the finale, service in the club stopped completely – the waiters stopped bringing drinks to the tables and the cash registers fell silent. The room went black except for a single spotlight trained on the singer. When she was done, Holiday would walk off the stage without giving an encore. How could you top that song? In Lady Sings the Blues, her autobiography, Holiday later recalled the audience’s stunned reaction the first time: “There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began clapping nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.“
Holiday’s record company, Columbia, refused to record the song, fearing a racist backlash. Eventually she managed to record it with Commodore and it became her biggest selling record. It got little exposure on the airwaves, so the #16 position is really an achievement. The song was denounced by Time Magazine as “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
What about the two protagonists of our story? By the 1950s Holiday’s voice had deteriorated tremendously due to years of abuse and she continued even faster down her destructive path of drugs, abusive relationships, and alcohol. In 1959, Holiday collapsed and was hospitalized; while on her deathbed, she was arrested once again for possession of narcotics. She died on July 17, 1959, of cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 44. Meeropol left the teaching profession in 1945 and went to Hollywood his other claim to fame is the adoption of the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the married couple of American communists executed after being found guilty of espionage against the United States in 1953.
The song now has iconic status. Holiday’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1978. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Time magazine had a change of heart and named it the song of the century in 1999. It was, in the words of jazz writer Leonard Feather, “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.” Less than two decades later America would be immersed in a civil rights war. Strange Fruit had been one of the opening salvoes. In October 1939, Samuel Grafton, writing in The New York Post described Strange Fruit thus: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its ‘Marseillaise’.” I don’t think Grafton was right; this was a political song but not a rousing hymn. Many protest songs are little more than propaganda, but “Strange Fruit” proved they could be art.
I’ll finish with the impressions of the actress Billie Allen Henderson of a performance of the song at New York’s Birdland in 1952:
“I was standing there with my date when she started singing this song. I was trying to be sophisticated and all of a sudden something stabs me in the solar plexus and I was gasping for air. It was so deeply felt. I understood it. I could smell the burning flesh; I felt it. She was . . . unrelenting is a good word for it. Some didn’t know how to react. They weren’t quite sure. Nobody stirred. It was startling, and I’ll never forget it. I thought, ‘That’s what art can do.’”