First recorded in 1939, the protest song Strange Fruit came to symbolise the brutality and racism of the practice of lynching in America’s South.
“Lynching was considered sport in some ways,” says Robert Meeropol, “Postcards were taken of crowds of people picnicking under hanging bodies showing people who were proud of what they’d accomplished.”
Meeropol is the adopted son of a Jewish schoolteacher, Abel Meeropol, who saw one of these postcards in the 1930s and was prompted to write the song Strange Fruit – later to be made famous by Billie Holiday.
Abel, who wrote under the name Lewis Allan, was a civil rights activist who adopted Robert and his brother after their parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed by the American government for being Communist spies in what Meeropol believed to be a “state-sponsored” lynching.
He wrote Strange Fruit as an attack on those who perpetrated it.
It was never a popular song, and certainly not among black communities or outside of progressive cities like New York.
Its subject matter was simply too painful and controversial.
Billie Holiday – Strange Fruit
Southern trees bear 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
Billie Holiday made the song famous, but in 1939 her record label refused to allow her to record it.
She was released from her contract especially to record it.
It was the first time a black artist had sung such controversial lyrics. Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun called the song “a declaration of war… the beginning of the civil rights movement”.
It has endured and become a symbol of the racism, cruelty, pain and suffering endured by so many in the United States. Other major artists, including Nina Simone, John Martyn, Sting and Robert Wyatt, went on to record it.
Billie Holiday’s version eventually sold more than a million copies. In 1999, Time magazine voted Strange Fruit the Song of the Century.