-Pete Seeger, musician/activist, on “Strange Fruit”
On August 7, 1930, a heavily-armed white mob broke into the Grant County Courthouse in Marion, Indiana. Inside were three black men (Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith, and James Cameron) who were being held as suspects in the murder of a white man and the alleged rape of his girlfriend.
As police officers looked on, Shipp, Smith, and Cameron were dragged from the courthouse and severely beaten. Shipp and Smith were then lynched in front of a crowd of thousands. No charges were filed in their murders.
Seven years later, Abel Meeropol—a public high school teacher and political activist in the Bronx—came into contact with a photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hanging from a tree. Horrified by the image, Meeropol wrote an anti-lynching poem entitled “Bitter Fruit,”
|The photo that drove Meeropol|
to pen "Strange Fruit"
The route that Meeropol’s 12-line song traveled from New York political events to Billie Holiday’s famous recording is murky.
In one account, Meeropol presented the song to Holiday while she was performing at the Café Society—an integrated night club in Greenwich Village—through the café’s owner, Barney Josephson. Others credit Robert Gordon (a Café Society producer who’d been exposed to the song at a Madison Square Garden anti-fascism rally) with introducing the number to Holiday.
The identity of the composer(s) is also a mystery. In her autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday claimed that she, Meeropol, and her pianist banged the arrangement out “in three weeks,” but Arthur Herzog, who wrote for Holiday, said “Strange Fruit” was written by blues/jazz arranger Danny Mendelsohn.
Holiday's label, Columbia, refused to be associated with the song, so she recorded it at the Commodore label's 52nd Street studio on April 20, 1939. With the backing of the Café Society’s house band, "Strange Fruit" was cut in just four hours.
Though the song has forever been associated with Billie Holiday, she doesn’t appear until 71 seconds into the recording. Considering the original arrangement too short (since Commodore charged more than their label competitors for single releases), producer Neil Gabler padded the beginning with two instrumental sections.
A soft horn chorus opens the song, laying the way for the muted trumpet melody of Frankie Newton. Eddie Dougherty’s cymbals fill out the background.
Just when you think the song can’t get any sadder, the trumpet introduction gives on to Lenny White’s improvised piano line. With the other instruments silenced, the isolated piano sounds far away, like a pianist tickling the ivories late at night in an empty piano bar. Fittingly, the song is in B flat minor, a key which often conjures melancholy.
The arrangement maintains its simplicity after Billie Holiday comes in, creating space for the vocal line. Scattered piano and the trumpet continue quietly behind the voice—sometimes
doubling the vocal melody along with the brass accompaniment.
In line with the bare bones arrangement, Holiday’s delivery is understated, heightening the prominence of the lyrics, which are as stark as the arrangement is simple.
The first couplet contrasts commonly held images of Dixie’s natural serenity with the ugly side of human nature revealed in the South:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
The second couplet fills this contradiction out and makes the point of the lyrics grimly clear:
Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees
Once the thrust of the lyrics has been established, the solitary piano makes a brief re-appearance before the third and fourth couplets, which bring the human suffering inflicted even more clearly into focus:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin' flesh
Holiday’s voice generally keeps a plaintive tone until it rises in pitch at the end of the fifth couplet, letting out bottled up emotion:
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
Rather than returning to the root note of B flat minor at the end like most pop songs, “Strange Fruit” ends on an F chord—an off-note or “unresolved” chord which could be seen to symbolize the incomprehensibility of lynching itself—as Holiday elongates the last word with a flourish.
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop
“Strange Fruit” was a bold political statement, particularly for a black artist in segregated
America. As Samuel Grafton of the New York Post put it, “[Holiday] reversed the usual relationship between a black entertainer and her white audience: ‘I have been entertaining you,’ she seemed to say, ‘now you can just listen to me.’”
Despite the subject matter and the unwillingness of most radio stations to play “Strange Fruit,” it climbed to #16 on the national charts in July of 1939 and ended up selling a million copies.
In the years since, “Strange Fruit” hasn’t had the staying power with the general public that some of Holiday’s more hummable numbers have had, but it has received the imprimatur of the music community.
The song has been covered by a large variety of artists both in the jazz world (Nina Simone, Cassandra Wilson, Herbie Hancock) and out (Jeff Buckley, Sting, Annie Lennox, Siouxsie and the Banshees).
It has been listed in the Recording Industry of America’s Songs of the Century and deemed one of “ten songs that actually changed the world” by Q magazine, a British rock publication.
When "Strange Fruit" was originally reviewed under the title “Strange Record” in 1939, a Time critic referred to Holiday as “a roly-poly young colored woman with a hump in her voice” who “does not care enough about her figure to watch her diet, but loves to sing.” The song itself was described as “a prime piece of musical propaganda” for the NAACP. Sixty years later, in 1999, Time named “Strange Fruit” the record of the century, reflecting both its greatness as a work of art and the song's role as a barometer for social progress in America.
Other civil rights writing by Dan Benbow:
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Road to the Mountaintop (about the speech King gave on the last night of his life)
Honest Abe Makes Sausage (a review of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln")
Actions, Not Words (a life review of Ollie Matson, an Olympic medal
winner, NFL Hall-of-Famer, civil rights trailblazer, and good citizen)