"Strange Fruit" is a song written by Abel Meeropol
, recorded by Billie Holiday
in 1939, while the poem the lyrics were drawn from was published in 1937. It protests the lynching of Black Americans
, with lyrics that compare the victims to the fruit of trees. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the Southern United States at the turn of the 20th century, and the great majority of victims were black.
[Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma (New York, 1944), page 561.]
The song has been called "a declaration" and "the beginning of the civil rights movement
Meeropol set his lyrics to music with his wife and singer Laura Duncan
and performed it as a protest song
in New York City
venues in the late 1930s, including Madison Square Garden
. Holiday's version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
in 1978. It was also included in the "Songs of the Century
" list of the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts
. The song has been covered by numerous artists, including Nina Simone
, Jeff Buckley
, Siouxsie and the Banshees
, Robert Wyatt
, and Dee Dee Bridgewater
. Diana Ross
recorded the song for her debut film, the Billie Holiday biopic ''Lady Sings the Blues
'' (1972), and it was included on the chart topping soundtrack album.
In 2002, "Strange Fruit" was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry
by the Library of Congress
as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".
Poem and song
"Strange Fruit" originated as a poem written by Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol
, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings
In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler
's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
in Marion, Indiana
Meeropol published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in January 1937 in ''The New York Teacher'', a union
magazine of the Teachers Union
Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson
) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. First performed by Meeropol's wife and their friends in social contexts,
his protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden
The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.
Billie Holiday's performances and recordings
Meeropol cited this photograph of the .html" style="text-decoration: none;"class="mw-redirect" title="lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith
, August 7, 1930, as inspiring his poem.
">lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, as inspiring his poem.
One version of events claims that Barney Josephson
, the founder of Café Society
in Greenwich Village
, New York's first integrated
nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday
. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Café Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her.
Holiday first performed the song at Café 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. Because of the power of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore.
During the musical introduction to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South
, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS
. When Holiday's producer John Hammond
also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler
, owner of the Commodore
label. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him ''a cappella'', and moved him to tears. Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release from her contract so she could record it; Frankie Newton
's eight-piece Café Society Band was used for the session. Because Gabler worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White
to improvise an introduction. On the recording, Holiday starts singing after 70 seconds.
It was recorded on April 20, 1939. Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records
to record and distribute the song.
Holiday recorded two major sessions of the song at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The song was highly regarded; the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies,
in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling recording.
In her 1956 autobiography, ''Lady Sings the Blues
'', Holiday suggested that she, together with Meeropol, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick
and Hilton Als
dismissed that claim in their work ''Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song'', writing that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch". When challenged, Holiday—whose autobiography had been ghostwritten
by William Dufty
—claimed, "I ain't never read that book."
Billie Holiday was so well known for her rendition of "Strange Fruit" that "she crafted a relationship to the song that would make them inseparable". Holiday's 1939 version of the song was included in the National Recording Registry
on January 27, 2003.
In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of the ''New York Post
'' said of "Strange Fruit", "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise
." In an attempt to have a two-thirds majority in the Senate that would break the filibusters by the southern senators, anti-racism activists were encouraged to mail copies of "Strange Fruit" to their senators.
Notable cover versions of this song include Nina Simone
(whose version was sampled in Kanye West
's "Blood on the Leaves
), René Marie
Siouxsie and the Banshees
Dee Dee Bridgewater
[Margolick, ''Strange Fruit'', p. 24] Bettye LaVette
and Edward W. Hardy
[BWW News Desk]
"Video: Listen To Edward W. Hardy's Haunting String Quartet Arrangement Of 'Strange Fruit'"
''BroadwayWorld'', June 24, 2020.
Nina Simone recorded the song in 1965, a recording described by journalist David Margolick
in the New York Times as featuring a "plain and unsentimental voice".
René Marie's rendition was coupled with Confederate anthem "Dixie
", making for an "uncomfortable juxtaposition", according to Pellegrinelli.
Journalist Lara Pellegrinelli wrote that Jeff Buckley while singing it "seems to meditate on the meaning of humanity the way Walt Whitman
did, considering all of its glorious and horrifying possibilities".
'' noted that Siouxsie and the Banshees's version contained "a solemn string section behind the vocals" and "a bridge of New Orleans funeral-march jazz" which enhanced the singer's "evocative interpretation". The group's rendition was selected by the ''Mojo magazine
'' staff to be included on the compilation ''Music Is Love: 15 Tracks That Changed The World ''.
Awards and honors
* 1999: ''Time
'' magazine named "Strange Fruit" as "Best Song of the Century" in its issue dated December 31, 1999.
* 2002: The Library of Congress
honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to add to the National Recording Registry
* 2010: The ''New Statesman
'' listed it as one of the "Top 20 Political Songs".
* ''2011: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
'' listed the song as Number One on "100 Songs of the South".
* Lillian Smith
's novel ''Strange Fruit
'' (1944) was said to have been inspired by Holiday's version of the song.
''Independent Lens'', PBS
Shmoop, analysis of lyrics, historical and literary allusions - student & teaching guide
BBC Radio 4 - ''Soul Music'', Series 17, Strange Fruit"Strange Fruit: A protest song with enduring relevance"
Category:Billie Holiday songs
Category:Songs about trees
Category:Lynching in the United States
Category:History of African-American civil rights
Category:Songs against racism and xenophobia
Category:Songs based on actual events
Category:Songs based on poems
Category:United States National Recording Registry recordings
Category:Works originally published in American magazines
Category:Songs about the American South