First recorded by the famous jazz singer Billie Holiday, ‘Strange Fruit’ is a song about the lynching of black people in Southern America in the first half of the 20th Century. It was first written as a poem by teacher Abel Meerpol and was then was published in 1937. Abel Meerpol was a white Jewish man who belonged to the American Communist Party, and he wrote the song after seeing a gruesome picture of a lynching of black men. In the 1930s, lynching had reached a high peak in the South of US. By conservative estimates there were around 4,000 lynchings in the half century before 1940, the vast majority in the South, with most of the victims black.
The song has simple lyrics, that carry a huge strength, and haunt you even when the song is over. The juxtaposition of the beautiful landscape, the scents of flowers and fruits, with the blood and broken bones of human beings brutally beaten gives a powerful and poignant feeling to the song. The song exposes the brutality of racism in America, and doesn’t leave any room for more words. When the meaning of the song is fully grasped, one remains shocked, angry and disgusted by the imagery portrayed.
When Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939 she said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances. The song was so powerful that a rule was set that she could only close a show with it; the barmen would have to close off service and darken the room. The show would end with Billie Holiday, with her powerful voice, singing in the dark with a light shining on her. Even the way it was performed reflected the compelling origin of the song and its lyrics.
It was not easy to record the song, as most recording companies were afraid of gaining a bad reputation with the anti-communists and southern racists in America, which at the time dominated the political scene. However, when it was finally recorded by Commodore in 1939, it quickly became famous. It attracted the attention of the more politically aware park of society; intellectuals, artists, teachers and journalists. In October of that year, a journalist of the New York Post described the song as the anthem and the anger of the exploited people of the south, if they ever got to voice it.
At a time when political protest was not often expressed in musical form, the song was revolutionary. It was seldom played on the radio. This was a period in which the segregationist Southern Dixiecrats played a leading role in the Democratic Party as well as the Roosevelt administration. It would take a mass movement to finally dismantle the apartheid system that played a key role in setting the stage for lynching.
The song, is said to be the original protest song.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh,
And 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 a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Writer/s: Lewis Allan