By Elaine Magliaro
Eleanora Fagan, better known as Billie Holiday, was a famous American jazz singer and song writer. One of her “most iconic” songs is Strange Fruit, which was first recorded in 1939. Elizabeth Blair (NPR) called the song “a haunting protest against the inhumanity of racism.” In her 2012 NPR article about the famous song, Blair told the story of Abe Meeropol, the man who wrote Strange Fruit. A“white Jewish guy from the Bronx,” Meeropol wrote the poem about the lynching of Black people and set it to music.
Meeropol graduated from Dewitt Clinton in 1921; he went on to teach English there for 17 years. He was also a poet and a social activist, says Gerard Pelisson, who wrote a book about the school.
In the late 1930s, Pellison says, Meeropol “was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching sort of put him over the edge.”
Meeropol once said the photograph “haunted” him “for days.” So he wrote a poem about it, which was then printed in a teachers union publication. An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music. He played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.
When Holiday decided to sing “Strange Fruit,” the song reached millions of people. While the lyrics never mention lynching, the metaphor is painfully clear:
Here is the first stanza of Meeropol’s poem:
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.
Click here to read the rest of the poem.
Billie Holiday Singing Strange Fruit
There is an excellent young adult book about Holiday titled Becoming Billie Holiday, which was written by award-winning poet Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by Floyd Cooper. The book is a “fictional memoir” of the singer that is told through “a sequence of raw and poignant poems…” (Taken from the book’s dust jacket)
With Thee I Sing—one of the poems from Becoming Billie Holiday:
Racism ripped America at the seams,
and jazz stitched the nation together
one song at a time. But music
alone couldn’t mend the tear.
The needle pricked my fingers
till my soul was sore, and I longed
to hop a train for home.
Billie Holiday (Wikipedia)
Strange Fruit (Wikipedia)