Billie Holiday, Abe Meeropol, and “Strange Fruit”—the Famous Song about Lynching Black People in America

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

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.

 

Blair:

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.

Lynching Circa 1925

Lynching
Circa 1925

Lynching of Laura Nelson Oklahoma, 1911

Lynching of Laura Nelson
Oklahoma, 1911

 

Billie Holiday Singing Strange Fruit

********************

BecomingBillieHolidayThere 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.

 

SOURCES

The Strange Story Of The Man Behind ‘Strange Fruit’ (NPR)

Billie Holiday (Wikipedia)

Strange Fruit (Wikipedia)

This entry was posted in American History, Equal Rights, History, Music, Poetry, Racism, Short Video, Society, United States and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Billie Holiday, Abe Meeropol, and “Strange Fruit”—the Famous Song about Lynching Black People in America

  1. Mike Spindell says:

    Elaine,

    Both in providing the history of this groundbreaking song and in remembrance of an American history that was prevalent throughout the country, you jog memories that for many Americans would best be forgotten. While we no longer lynch people of color, our institutions have found more “legal” ways to put them in their place lethally: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/23/police-brutality-michael-brown_n_5700970.html

  2. Elaine M. says:

    Mike,

    The killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police were the impetus for my writing up this post. There are many societal injustices in this country that some of our fellow citizens choose to ignore.

  3. Anonymously Yours says:

    Elaine,

    This surpasses in my opinion your greatest contribution…. I have heard it but to be honest never really heard the words…

    I also heard something about the origins of some of the popular nursery rhymes…. There origin as well is of gore… Especially There was an old lady who lived in a shoe….

  4. blouise says:

    Did this piece (Strange Fruit) for my 2nd semester sophomore year jury. (A jury is the grading procedure for instrument performance and “voice is an instrument. The jury is made up of your prof plus at least two other music profs. One performs a piece, sometimes two pieces, and the profs discuss and then agree upon a grade which is the only grade you get for that semester in that class. One shot is all you get. In a Conservatory, jury time is extremely stressful!)

    Considering that I was a classical mezzo, convincing my voice coach that Strange Fruit should be permitted required some real politicking. But, it was the ’60’s so success was mine.

    “Black bodies swingin’ in the southern breeze” was an exceptionally hard line to sing as earlier in the year I had helped cut a young boy down from just such a tree.

    Got an A+.

    Bittersweet memories

  5. blouise17 says:

    “There are many societal injustices in this country that some of our fellow citizens choose to ignore.” (Elaine)

    Me thinks you might be … might be … being too kind. Many of our citizens choose to agree with the injustices as justifiable.

  6. swarthmoremom says:

    I have a friend in Texas that is in her mid fifties. She is white and not a person of color. She told me that when she visited family in Alabama as a child she saw these things. Her father told her not to look but she never forgot the images. I will never forget what she shared with me.

  7. blouise says:

    There’s an old truism that applies:
    “Don’t humiliate cops whose careers are characterized by mediocrity … the outcome can be lethal”

  8. Elaine M. says:

    Blouise,

    This one is for you:

    3 civil rights workers murdered

  9. blouise says:

    Elaine,

    The bodies would be left hanging … swingin’ in the breeze much like Brown’s body was left for hours layin’ uncovered in the street. What the two situations have in common can be found in the definition of racial bullying. “We’re going to leave him there so y’all learn what we can do and how powerless y’all are to stop us. ” … a classic injustice that many will bend over backwards to justify.

  10. Circuit Judge Marcus Gordon presided over the trial of Edgar Ray Killen. He is a powerfully built man of imposing stature at 6’4″ tall. He has those icy blue-grey eyes one can expect of a true Scot, and a temper to go with it. He is probably the toughest single judge I know, and one who brooks no nonsense and no theatrics in his courtroom. A hard man, but fair. “Preacher” Killen received a fair trial and a just sentence. His RED date is far beyond his life expectancy, even if he lives to be the oldest man on the planet.

    In a twist of karmic justice, the state penitentiary has a fully integrated staff. That means at least some of the correctional officers guarding him are black. He has to submit to letting black officers handcuff him, search him (and his cell) routinely, and he must obey their orders. Inmates hate cell searches because the guards go over every square inch of their stuff looking for contraband. They don’t straighten the place back up after a shakedown. Heh!

  11. Annie says:

    The Billy Hoilday version of “Strange Fruit” is the best one by far, if one can consider anything at all positive about this incredibly sad song. Gives me chills every time I hear her sing it.

  12. Annie says:

    Arrrrg, Billie Holiday.

  13. Oky1 says:

    ** Lynching of Laura Nelson
    Oklahoma, 1911 **

    I’ve seen that picture a few times & recently looked back at it on wiki. Seems the family was starving, the women’s husband stole a calf or cow. Mob & LE went to their home, phk’d them up or something, hung her & I believe her grown son off a bridge, but best I recall the husband was tried in court & given one year in the pen. Horrible story, horrible out come.

    While doing some genealogy research in Lamar Mo the material we were looking for was in the basement of the county court house along with the historical society. Among the historical societies artifacts was a picture of a multiple hanging around 1890 i think, at that vary court house & the big oak tree.

    I wish I’d thought to have taken pictures & will if I get back in range to stop.

    It was either 7 or 8 men, all white except for one black, what I found unique was that one could see from the picture the wind was blowing hard as all the dead bodies were clearly tilting in the wind.

    The court house & the big oak tree still looked about the same as it did a 100+ years later.

    There are a few cases in which I believe in the govt’s use of the death penalty, but over all I don’t believe as a society that we are able to apply it fairly & responsible through the govt.

    And that’s why I trust the citizen with the 2nd Amd. as they are personally responsible if the wrong person gets shot.

    If we wish to get tough on crime, I say the head rots from the head, the govt death penalty should be reserved only for those high up in positions of power/responsible, like DC politicians, Lobbyist, Wallst scum Banker/Insurance trash, CMIC, etc..

    But that won’t happen because we as a society are unable to deal with any complex problem containing more then 2 degrees of difficulty.

    Literally, society has been that dumbed down all they can see is their Iphone, Football, etc.

    We can’t discuss the approximately 50 million black babies that have been aborted since Roe v Wade, abortion, responsible breeding, etc.

    I can’t, I’ve not enough time/mind for all these issues, Cloud Sourcing is the only hope I see to cover all the territory that needs covering.

    (No, I don’t mean using Facebook, I believe they & many corps like them Hate Freedom/Liberty & they are not to be used/trusted.)

    In the mean time American workers have been training their India/China/etc., replacement slave workers who have since went on to train their even cheaper slave worker replacements.

    Mean while Sterilants have been add to the vaccines, plastics, etc & last I heard the US male sperm count was down around 75-80% below normal so most of our kids won’t even be able to breed.

    Either that or they’re to fat to breed from all the toxins. What’s that number.. super higher?

    And here comes our Robot replacements.

    So yeah, hanging wasn’t cost efficient enough for the wallst Bank/Insur creeps like Gates/Buffet/Soros/etc., I mean those ahole lunatic sociopaths wishing to murdering 7 some billion people, that’s a rather large undertaking & they wish to do it cheaply.

    Anyway, enough rant here, hang in there. LOL:) Sarc off

  14. James Knauer says:

    Very moving, Elaine. Billie Holiday was a staple since I was a kid. One moment we make progress and the next stage a Ferguson. Staged with camouflage wearing boy-men who like to been seen being “tough”.

    Billie Holiday let’s us know that dog won’t hunt.

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