Composed by Abel Meeropol (aka: Lewis Allan), a Bronx school teacher, writer, and political radical. He would later adopt the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution in the 1950's for alleged spy activities for the Russians.

The eerie melody and graphic lyrics about the horribly common practice of lynching Blacks in the South, served a a wakeup call for the rest of the nation. It also marked the first time that Holiday used her music and appeal to take a stand for Civil Rights.

It was first performed in 1939 at The Cafe Society, a trendy and upscale jazz club. Holiday would typically perform the song at the end of her set and in short time it became her signature piece--so much so that many people believe that she penned it (a claim she never refuted, believing the song belonged to her on a spiritual level.)

Southern trees bear a 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.

A song written and composed by Abel Meeropol and most famously performed by Billie Holiday.

Meeropol was a New York City teacher and poet who'd written the poem after seeing a photograph by Lawrence Beitler of the lynchings of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem in a union magazine called "The New York Teacher" in 1937 under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. After setting the poem to music, Meeropol, his wife, and Laura Duncan, a black singer, performed it at Madison Square Garden.

Billie Holiday learned of the song from Barney Josephson, the owner of New York's first integrated nightclub, the Cafe Society; she performed it there for the first time in 1939. It became a popular part of her live performances, usually saved for her last song of the night, and Holiday asked her label, Columbia, about recording the song. Worried about a backlash in the South, Columbia passed on it, but gave her a single-session release from her contract so she could record it with Commodore, a jazz label.

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.

"Strange Fruit" was Holiday's biggest selling record, and it soon became known as her signature song. It was quickly adopted by the anti-lynching movement, and its popularity helped win many listeners over. In time, it became one of the anthems of the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s.

It meant a lot to Holiday, too. She said it reminded her of her father (he wasn't lynched, but died after being turned away by white hospitals), which was one reason she stuck with it for so many years. And Bobby Tucker, her accompanist, said that, even after years of performing the song, she always broke down crying after singing it.

The song is generally classified as blues or jazz, but it seems to transcend both, especially as performed by Holiday. It seems like a fusion of jazz, the dissonant classical music of the early 20th century, and pure horror. Holiday had an unbelievably beautiful and melodic voice, but in this song, her voice embodies revulsion and ugliness. I'm not saying she sings the song poorly or out-of-tune, because the notes are perfect, and the musicianship is perfect -- but Holiday lets the horrors described in the lyrics come right out in the open. It's a two-and-a-half-minute epic of loathing and dread and fear. It's no wonder it became an anthem against lynching, and with its perfect musical skill and artistry, it's no wonder that it became one of Holiday's best-known songs.

Here is 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.

Watch the video.

Research:
Spartacus Educational
Wikipedia
Independent Lens

Cassandra Wilson came out with a version of this chilling song on her CD "New Moon Daughter" (Blue Note) in 1995.

Wilson was accompanied by Chris Whitley on "resophonic" guitar, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and Graham Haynes on cornet.

I have heard numberless versions of Holiday singing this song as it was her signature piece (even more so than "God Bless The Child"). Wilson's smokey voice, the bass riffs, the guitar, and coronet and work together to give a convincing new interpretation.

Um, she also does "Last Train to Clarkesville" by Boyce and Hart, made famous by The Monkees. It works. It really does.

There's two instances in which I think of this song. One is when I make the mistake of turning on the television and hearing about some dogforsaken "controversial" pap-pablum manufactured and vat-grown teenybopper sensation or someone getting all scandalized by some small pecadillo.

And the other is when, as a Southern man, I hear some ignorant sumbitch bleatin' on about reverse racism or why do the "coloured"s have to complain so much. You wait you long enough and you'll hear it. Hell, go to any church and you'll see the white folks on one side of the church and the black folks the other, they'll interact in the service and then the whitefolks can't get to their damn cars fast enough away from the other folks. 20goddamn10, and we're still carrying this stuff on.

Because you see, when Lady Day, god bless her too-soon departed soul, got up in front of New York's only integrated cafe in 1939 and belted that out, (and remember, the prevailing image of the South at the time was the delightfully pastoral "Gone With The Wind" and its happy slaves, toiling in the fields, sticking close by their massas when the war comes, knowin' an all how to "bringin' babies"), it was like a needle screeching on a record. And when she started singing about that pastoral scene, with bloody tree roots and human beings hanging from nooses on trees, needless to say, she had a pair. She may have been born a woman and died a woman, but she had a bigger set than any of them today.

She walked into an integrated cafe, with its cosmopolitan intellectual set breakin' its wrist patting itself on the back at how liberal it was hobnobbing with the "coloureds", and quietly lifted her skirts and pissed on the biggest box office film of its day and for decades afterwards (well, until Star Wars showed up).

Oh, they told her not to sing that again. Club owners, record companies, they didn't like that. Too ugly a song. Too controversial. People met her and her accompanist after the show. She and he were beaten. Some days she gave as good as she got - some feller from Georgia once made a pornographic drawing on his bar napkin, and, flashing it to her, offered to show her some "Strange Fruit" - and to the credit of the club, after she broke a chair over his head the bouncers took him outside and roughed him up. (It would have been akin to someone making light remarks about Schindler's List, these days.) A white woman followed her into the powder room and screamingly assaulted her, in the grip of post traumatic stress disorder at having been made to see a lynching as a child.

It, like the other powerful song Gloomy Sunday that she became most famous for, simultaneously elevated her to legend and ate her inside. Almost as sure as the heroin and alcohol, the rough upbringing and her years in the whorehouse, that song chewed her insides. Her own (then young) son asked her how a root could have blood (referencing a line from the song) and she screamed at him that it would involve a white man cutting his balls off and shoving them down his throat before stringing him in a tree.

Not only was it a song sung by a black woman about deeply divisive race relations in a time when there were still laws against integration and blacks had separate washrooms, drinking fountains, and seats on the bus, it was a song written by a Communist sympathizing Jew. So when McCarthyism and the Red Scare went full sway the twin forces of anti-Semitism and anti-Communist hysteria bore down on her, as well.

As noted here, she cried when she sang it. It contributed, most surely, to her rapid decline and early death. It made her scream at her own kin and break chairs over the heads of patrons. But it was one of the very first instances where the media talked about the evils of slavery and the injustices against the black man not from an intellectual or moral stance but a very very real, raw and ugly one. It cost her club dates, it cost her sales, people walked out of her concerts when she performed that song.

As a woman, and as a person of colour she was expected, if fortunate enough to entertain the white people, to enter the establishment from the rear and to sing nice, cute ditties and perhaps show a little skin. She was sure as hell not expected to hold up a mirror to a jazz-listening public and quietly REMIND them that the people they were listening to and co-opting were being treated LIKE SHIT.

She didn't get recognition in her life for this song from the people it helped - the NAACP didn't approve of entertainers, nor did the black churches - so there was no chance of her getting humanitarian accolades for such a work of art. But though it cost her so dearly, that song ignited passions in people who would later work hard, both black and white, to remedy and redress the wrongs, to put an end to the hatred against blacks and the societal attitudes that encouraged it.

It has since gone on to be considered by many to be one of the most influential songs of the 20th century. Q magazine, Time magazine, others have included it in lists of phenomenal achievements of our time.

So the next time one of these long-haired, tattooed and painted up ghouls wipes his ass on the American flag and thinks he's oh-so-controversial, or everyone gets worked up in a tizzy that some vile papparazzi was able to take a shot of some empty headed starlet's naked twitchet, it just makes me laugh. And likewise, when one of my lesser educated white friends asks why he can't use the word "nigger", I simply reach for my record player.

In honor of Martin Luther King day, 2010. God rest your soul, Doctor.

Downtown, far from the stores shoppers flock to, is a four story red brick building. The first three floors house old medical records that can't be legally destroyed until they're thirty years old. Upstairs, the owner of the building has turned the fourth floor into a home for plants. Lush potted greens line the west wall, some rise up to block the windows, other shorter plants extend into the main area which is a gray cement floor that's been recently redone. In the corner is a bin with yoga mats. There's a stereo, a few pieces of red leather furniture that seem both out of place, as well as oddly fitting. Standing in a pool of pulsing coppery sunshine, I see the room not as it is, but the way the paramedics discovered it back in August. I picture the six sides of the human foot, and relive the crunch of it being driven upwards into an assailant's jaw.

The other room I want to tell you about isn't as large as the fourth floor quarters it was modeled after, however, it isn't as empty either. There are fewer plants, the owner killed a few before she realized she was watering them too frequently. The uneven flooring is scuffed, it needs to be swept badly although you get the feeling that the broom and dustpan that lean next to the garbage can probably don't get much of a workout. A bamboo bowl of apples is one of the first things you see when you walk into the room. The bowl is large, it's painted green on the outside, the fruit inside didn't pass the supermarket standards which is why the owner is able to get organic produce at a discount, sometimes for free.

Other signs speak to the owner not being wealthy, the bathroom is functional, but the tissue is barely there, and the toilet makes a thunking gurgling sound after it's been flushed. The room is an odd triangular shape, in the near corner a dark skinned woman is wiping the nose of her toddler. Squinting makes images clearer, around the room are many troubled women. Some are swaying as they sing softly, others are talking, two women are hugging, the woman closest to the window pulls away first, wiping her eyes with her hands while the woman who was giving her a hug smiles gently.

Strange Fruit bills itself as a yoga studio where you can buy soup, salads, smoothies, and juice. The owner lives upstairs, and although the mingled women on the first floor have differing skin and eye colors, they're all carrying the scars and stripes that made them victims of abuse. Their lives are better now that they have a place to stay, even if it means they're sleeping on yoga mats, and covered by borrowed bedding. It's a place where anyone can go, the occasional man wanders through, but most of the patrons are women, usually with children, and without money.

Somehow, the place stays in business, managing to pay the rent by pleading with the landlord, and making payments just before the eviction notice gets printed. Despite the sorrowful journey that has brought most of the women here, hope permeates the air. There's talk of preparing for job interviews, of meeting attorneys, and of a tomorrow that will bring new skills, fresh faces, and distance from the lives that they used to lead. Those who have been here for a while welcome the newcomers who hold their coats tight to their chests, wearing fresh bruises from recent beatings instead of paint and powder.

Rarely do well educated women walk through the doors, although the woman with five children who left an abusive spouse after he dragged her son off of the playground feet first was a college professor before she quit her job in another state. For months she stayed with people she knew, parenting to the best of her ability before she was able to get professional help. I had an interesting talk with the woman who runs Strange Fruit. She admitted that she once upon a time she had a regular job. Her life changed the day a woman whose battered face made it difficult for her to speak asked if she could use the bathroom before her brother came to pick her up. She says that despite the challenges involved in keeping her pseudo restaurant and yoga studio afloat, she doesn't have any regrets.

Her room isn't furnished, there's a curled yoga mat, a dented brass alarm clock, and two decaying sweaters hanging in her closet. I can't find a full sized towel in her bathroom, she has half a bar of lavender soap in her shower, dental floss, a bottle of vitamins, and an electric toothbrush sit on the edge of her sink. She states that God will provide, there isn't much to steal so she doesn't worry about people trying to take advantage of her anymore. Standing in front of her, I wonder what griefs etched those lines into her forehead. I can't fathom the type the courage it would take to start a place like this with nothing more than a dream of offereing hope to those who gather below. I think about what she's going to do when she's old, and has to retire from this round the clock stream of women who pour through her door. When I ask her, she gives me a half smile, sticks her hands in the pockets of a sweater that only has one elbow, shrugs, and points to a picture her daughter drew when she was still married to her husband. The black tornado and huddled brown stick figures don't remind me of grade school art.

Now I notice a scar below her right eyebrow whose crooked path disappears into her hairline. I see dusty light shining onto a jagged line above her left eye, there's tension in her squared shoulders, but the anxiety she tells me she used to live with, that's gone from her gaze, hopefully for good. Morning comes early, with much to be done, so bedtime is usually at nine. People drag the yoga mats out, place them as close to, or as far away from others as they can, depending on what the weather is like. Heating and cooling are unreliable, but complaining is mostly done by children who are too young to realize that safety isn't always the comfortable temperature they wish it was. Dust hangs in the air after bedding is distributed. Gradually it settles, creating a fine film which reminds me that my reclaimed flooring really needs to be swept.

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