Strange Fruit is an iconic song with a twisted, dark, and yet, hunting, empowering effect. It is a quiet song, nothing like tunes we often hear during protests. Think Killin In The Name Of, God Save The Queen or Fight The Power. Yet, despite their power to move the crowds, these songs do not touch hearts like Strange Fruit.
On a hot evening of August 7, 1930, two black men were hanged in Marion, Indiana. First, the group of white people beat them, tortured them, and finally, their lives ended on a tree. Lawrence Beitler, a local photographer, captured the moment.
That photo became a symbol of deeply rooted racism, and it is still as important today as it was in 1930. Abel Meeropol, a teacher, saw it and crafted a song. That song would be recorded in 1939 by no other than legendary Billie Holiday.
The Day Before The Lynching
A white couple was assaulted. The man was shot and died in the hospital while his companion was raped. The police took the dead man's bloody shirt and waved it like a flag.
While it was tragic what happened to Claude Deeter, 23, and Mary Ball, 19, what followed was not a hunt for justice. It was pure and agonizing hate, something that not even serial killers experience.
Mary said three black men shot her future husband and raped her: Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron.
Police arrested Shipp, Smith, and Cameron and charged them with murdering Deeter and raping Ball. Later, Mary Ball changed her statement. She said she was never raped, and Cameron, the only surviving trio member, later stated that his friends did shoot Deeter.
But, before the trial, a white mob from all across Indiana gathered and kidnapped three black men. The white men broke into a prison, dragged out the black teenagers, and Cameron survived by pure luck.
Smith was stabbed, and his bones were broken before the mob finally hanged him. Shipp was beaten and hanged from the window bars of the jail. The crowd brought his dead body next to Smith's. Cameron was saved by someone from the group, who yelled that he was innocent. Though he was in jail for being an accessory in murder, in 1991, the state of Indiana pardoned him.
Cameron spent the rest of his life working as a civil rights activist.
Creating Strange Fruit
Abel Meeropol wrote a poem after the image of the lynching haunted him for days. The poem was published in 1937 under his pseudonym Lewis Allan. Lewis Allan was a tribute to his stillborn children.
Abel was not black, nor was he from the South. He was a New Yorker, a descendant of Russian Jewish immigrants, who believed in communism. Tormented and angered, an English school teacher with a degree from Harvard penned the plea for civil rights.
Strange Fruit was first printed as Bitter Fruit in The New Masses and Teachers Union publications. The music came later.
As his adoptive sons said, Abel was not just saddened because of the lynching. He was mad because the photo showed young men and women smiling while standing in front of lifeless, hanging bodies.
Abel Meeropol later published more poems, but Bitter Fruit remains not just his best. It is undoubtedly one of the most controversial yet saddest poems ever.
Strange Fruit is an anti-lynching anthem and the ultimate artistic expression of inequality.
Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit
Meeropol's sons agree that Billie Holiday made the song hers. But, she also paid the price for being bold enough to perform the song.
As you may have guessed, not only was the song banned but it was seen as anti-American and used against Holiday, not just as an artist but as a human being.
Her voice, full of sorrow and rage, combined with the lyrics that do not age, was ideal. It appears that Strange Fruit did the unthinkable for the 30s, as two people, different in everything, managed to come together and create pure magic.
Meeropol's words resemble a tragedy. His music is gloomy. But, Holiday's voice paints the tune, giving it much-needed first-hand experience.
Holiday recorded Strange Fruit on April 20, 1939. Her first public appearance with the song at Café Society is part of pop history.
The jazz diva described this moment in her biography:
"The first time I sang it, I thought it was a mistake. There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly, everyone was clapping."
Strange Fruit was adored, hated, left people in tears. But it was too much to handle for the white supremacist, so the song was banned.
It was not the first song against lynching or racism. But it was different. Samuel Grafton, New York Post's columnist, wrote about the piece:
"It will, even after the tenth hearing, make you blink and hold onto your chair. Even now, as I think of it, the short hair on the back of my neck tightens, and I want to hit somebody. And I think I know who."
In 1940, Meeropol testified before a committee investigating communism. He was asked whether the US Communist Party paid him to write Strange Fruit.
The infamous head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger, took a particular interest in Holiday's documented drug abuse. He made it his mission to make her life a living hell, and he partly succeeded.
But for the singer, Strange Fruit was a reminder of her father. He died at 39 because the doctors refused to see him, as he was black.
Strange Fruit Today
Speaking about his poem in 1971, Abel Meeropol said:
"I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it."
This magnificent man implied that Strange Fruit belonged in the 30s. However, his adopted sons, whose parents were killed for espionage, talked about its effect in early 2021. The brothers became college professors and never shied away from social issues.
Robert, a younger son of Abel and Anne Meeropo, said:
"My father wrote Strange Fruit. The Capitol rioters had a lot in common with the lynch mobs that inspired that song"
Strange Fruit will forever be linked to Billie Holiday, but it was huge in the 60s, during the civil rights movement. It was covered by numerous musicians, most notably Nina Simone, another music legend whose life was intersected by racism.
Kanye West sampled Simone's cover for Blood on the Leaves. But its return in 2020, after the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, was a gruesome reminder that white supremacy is deeply rooted in the system.
Talking to BBC, writer David Margolick said:
"Every once in a while there's some horrific moment but lynching has become kind of a metaphor. In that sense, the song has become more metaphorical than literal over the decades."
James Cameron became a civil rights activist, establishing the America's Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1988.
Strange Fruit remains an outstanding collaboration between two different people, with different ideas and goals, united only in their desire, to tell the truth. A Jewish immigrant and a black woman, imagine that.
Strange Fruit Lyrics
Notice how the author never once mentions the word "lynching."
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 a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop