Billie Holiday recorded her iconic version of Strange Fruit on 20 April 1939. Eighty years on – in the first of our Songs that Made History series – Aida Amoako explores how a poem about lynching became a timeless call to action.
“Can you imagine never having heard this song before and realising what the strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees is? That’s something that unfolds in the time of listening, so that image of bulging eyes and twisted mouth jumps out at the listener.” Cultural critic Emily J Lordi is describing the particular power of a song that still shocks 80 years after it was first performed.
On 20 April 1939, the jazz singer Billie Holiday (born Eleanora Fagan in 1915) stepped into a studio with an eight-piece band to record Strange Fruit. This jarring song about the horrors of lynching was not only Holiday’s biggest hit, but it would become one of the most influential protest songs of the 20th Century – continuing to speak to us about racial violence today.
It was named the song of the century by Time magazine in 1999, and the story of Strange Fruit’s conception has entered legend. Originally a poem called Bitter Fruit, it was written by the Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol under the pseudonym Lewis Allen in response to lynching in US southern states. “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it,” Meeropol said in 1971. He never witnessed a lynching but it is suggested he wrote Strange Fruit after seeing Lawrence Beitler’s distressing photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Indiana. Lynching had begun to subside by the time the poem was published – but photographs like Beitler’s seared these graphic images into public consciousness.
Soon after publication, Meeropol set the song to music. It was performed at union meetings and even at Madison Square Garden by the jazz singer Laura Duncan. It was there that Robert Gordon, the new floor manager at the jazz club Café Society, supposedly first heard Strange Fruit in 1938. He mentioned it to Barney Josephson, the club’s founder, and Meeropol was invited to play it for Holiday.
In the spotlight
William Dufty, who co-wrote Holiday’s autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, once said: “Holiday doesn’t sing songs; she transforms them.” Holiday, her accompanist Sonny White and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, worked solidly for three weeks before debuting the revamped Strange Fruit at Café Society. In his 2001 book Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, the writer David Margolick suggests the club, with its policy of complete integration, was “probably the only place in America where Strange Fruit could have been sung and savoured”. To ensure that it was indeed savoured, Holiday and Josephson created specific conditions for the performances. It would be the last song in the set, there would be absolute silence, no bar service and the lights would be dimmed save for a single spotlight on Holiday’s face. As Josephson said, “People had to remember Strange Fruit, get their insides burned with it.”
What happened on the first night Holiday performed Strange Fruit at Café Society foreshadowed the response it would get when released as a record. “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,” said Holiday in her autobiography. To hear Holiday sing of “the sudden smell of burning flesh” minutes after her jazz ballads was disquieting. Meeropol wrote: “She gave a startling, most dramatic and effective interpretation, which could jolt an audience out of its complacency anywheres [sic].”
As the song became a feature of her sets, Holiday witnessed a range of reactions, from tears to walkouts and racist hecklers. Radio stations in the US and abroad blacklisted it and Holiday’s label, Columbia Records, refused to record it. When she toured the song, some proprietors tried discouraging her from singing it for fear of alienating or angering their patrons.
It wasn’t just the song’s political nature that startled and moved listeners but the way Holiday performed it, a manner often described as haunting. Lordi argues in her book Black Resonance: Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature that this was the result of deliberate choices Holiday made. She tells BBC Culture: “There’s a real minimalist aesthetic to her recording that calls attention to just how striking the lyric is… There is simmering rage in the way she clips the syllables and that ‘drop’. But there’s also a deep mournful quality to Holiday’s performance.”
What is so remarkable about Strange Fruit is how indelible a mark it made on American society so soon after its release. Samuel Grafton, a columnist for the New York Post, wrote of the song: “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.”
Strange Fruit was not the first popular song to deal with race. Fats Waller’s Black and Blue had come out 10 years earlier, and Lead Belly recorded The Bourgeois Blues in the same month Holiday recorded Strange Fruit. But Strange Fruit stands out among protest songs for its graphic content and subsequent commercial success. Tad Hershorn, an archivist at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, tells BBC Culture: “It was such an in-your-face type of protest song [that it] really gained her fame outside of Harlem … it did really leave both the singer and the audience no place to hide.”
A call to arms
This bold confrontation helped galvanise a movement that would eventually alter the course of US history. Anti-lynching campaigners sent Strange Fruit to congressmen to encourage them to propose a viable anti-lynching bill. A review in Time Magazine referred to the song as “a prime piece of musical propaganda for the NAACP”. Ahmet Ertegun, who later co-founded Atlantic Records, called it “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement”. Strange Fruit also brought its creators unwanted attention. In 1940 Meeropol, a socialist, was called to testify before a committee investigating communism and asked whether the US Communist Party had paid him to write Strange Fruit. Journalist Johann Hari suggests that while stories of Holiday’s drug use had already been circling, her first performance of Strange Fruit put her firmly on the radar of Harry Anslinger, the notorious head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.
For some, Strange Fruit and Holiday’s personal life are inextricable: the aspects of her biography that made her the embodiment of a tragic jazz heroine are the source of the haunting quality of her voice. Despite the fact that Holiday never witnessed a lynching (contrary to what the 1972 Diana Ross film Lady Sings the Blues shows), Strange Fruit still evoked the racial injustice that she felt killed her father, Clarence, who was refused medical treatment at a Texas hospital.
But as Strange Fruit has become separated from Holiday’s personal life over the decades, it has also become distanced from the specific horror of lynching. “It’s come to sort of represent racism generally,” Margolick tells BBC Culture. “Every once in a while there’s some horrific moment but lynching has become kind of a metaphor and, in that sense, the song has become more metaphorical than literal over the decades.”
Perhaps this is why in later years, according to Margolick, Meeropol suggested Strange Fruit “belonged to the Thirties”. But its influence has spanned decades. The songs associated with the civil rights movement of the 1960s are less explicit than Strange Fruit – but Margolick argues that it “conditioned the kinds of people who later sang protest music in the 1960s and taught them the impact that a strong song can have”.
Many musicians have covered, sampled, adapted Strange Fruit, the most famous being Nina Simone in 1965, while Kanye West sampled Simone’s cover for his 2013 track Blood on the Leaves. In 2017, British singer Rebecca Ferguson announced she would only accept the invitation to sing at then President-elect Trump’s inauguration if she could sing Strange Fruit. For Lordi, its unending power lies in the way it “distills the fact of racial violence so unmistakably. It’s shorthand for ‘What is a song I can think of that most powerfully indicts the ongoing legacy of racial violence in this country and across the world?’”
In 2002, Strange Fruit was added to the National Registry of the Library of Congress, immortalising it as a song of great significance to the musical heritage of the US. Holiday died in 1959 and Meeropol in 1986 – but their collaboration has endured, its capacity to shock never waning. It has inspired musicians since to sing about injustice with candour and the awareness that a song can be a timeless impetus for social change.
“There’s something that’s still very radioactive about the song.” says Margolick. “It’s still relevant because race is still relevant. It’s on the front pages of our newspapers every day. The impulses that [Meeropol] was talking about are still very much with us.”