Billie Holiday first performed the song, “Strange Fruit”, at Café Society, New York’s first integrated nightclub. Café Society was created by Barney Josephson who some say introduced the song to Billie.
Holiday said it scared the hell out of her as she feared retaliation but because the imagery reminded her of her father she made it a part of her regular performances. Because of the nature of the song Josephson drew up some rules for her.
First she would end on it, there would be no encore. Second, the waiters would stop all services in advance. The room would be darkened except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face. Powerful stuff for the times as Holiday would sing with her eyes closed almost as if in prayer.
Strange Fruit was recorded on this day in 1939 becoming Billie Holiday’s biggest selling hit with over a million copies sold.
Samuel Grafton of the New York Times wrote of Strange Fruit: “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise.” In case you don’t know, Marseillaise is Frances’ national anthem. A revolutionary anthem to freedom and a patriotic call to mobilize the fight against tyranny.
The Rest of the Story
Strange Fruit was a poem written my Abel Meeropol, a teacher and writer. The poem was inspired by a disturbing photograph of a lynching. It put Abel over the edge as he was disturbed and sickened by racism in America. He said the photograph haunted him for days, so he wrote a poem about it. As an amateur composer he set the poem to music and played it to a New York club owner, Barney Josephson. Josephson gave it to Billie Holiday.
Strange Fruit ~ Abel Meeropol
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The lyrics never mention lynching but the metaphor is painfully clear.
One Other Thing
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage in 1953. It caught America by storm. A married couple busted for spying. It carried national headlines month after month. Now they were both headed to the electric chair. They had two young sons, Robert and Michael, 6 and 10 years old. There were touching news photos of the young boys dressed in suits to visit their parents in prison.
Robert recalls that after their parent’s execution it wasn’t clear where they would end up. Remember it was the height of McCarthism and no one wanted to be associated in any way with the Rosenbergs or Communism. Not even family members.
At a social event, a Christmas party at the home of W.E.B Du Bois1, the boys were introduced to Abel and Anne Meeropol. Weeks later they were living with them, eventually ending up being raised by Abel and Anne.
There is something special about this man who was able to make a loving family out of a national scandal, connecting this and his poem, Strange Fruit. His son Robert said,
“One of the most remarkable things was how quickly we adapted,” Robert says. “He was incredibly softhearted”.
A little more from Billie Holiday
1 Du Bois was a Harvard graduate and the first African American to earn a doctorate, he became a professor of history, sociology and economics at Atlanta University.