“Strange Fruit” At 70

Injustice, murder and record company politics: the remarkable story of the greatest protest song of all, by MOJO's Phil Sutcliffe.

Seventy years ago this month Billie Holiday released "Strange Fruit": man's inhumanity to man made manifest in precisely three minutes, 12 scalding lines, inspired by the lynching of two black men--"Southern trees bear a strange fruit..."

A couple of weeks ago on Britain's Radio 2 Bob Dylan played it on Theme Time Radio Hour. It had to close the show, he said, nothing could follow it, certainly nothing germane to his chosen topic, fruit. "Yes, We Have No Bananas"? Not really.

The song always closed the show, from the first time Holiday sang it at Café Society, Greenwich Village, then the only integrated club in New York. Last song, darkness bar one spotlight on her face throughout. No bows, no encores.

Then from the audience, silence. Followed by nervous applause. Because "Strange Fruit" became part of the great wave of black American history from slavery through segregation to the Civil Rights movement, Obama and beyond. "Strange Fruit" galvanized the crucial, uneasy process of bringing black and white musicians and their audiences together in common cause.

Bronx schoolteacher Abel Meeropol wrote the lyric after he saw a photograph of the 1930 lynching of alleged murderers Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. It happened in Marion, Indiana, but he shifted the scene: "Black bodies swingin' in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hangin' from the poplar trees." Being a Jewish Communist in public employment, when he published it in The New York Teacher union magazine, January, 1937, he signed it "Lewis Allan." He put a tune to it and sang it with his wife, Anne, at political gatherings, once even at a Madison Square Garden rally.

Early in '39 he showed Holiday the lyric at Café Society and she "dug it right off." With her boyfriend, pianist Sonny White, she wrote or adapted the music and presented the song to John Hammond, the liberal A&R man who'd signed her to Columbia/CBS (as he did Dylan, Seeger, Aretha and Springsteen down the years).

But Hammond didn't like it--politically or aesthetically is unclear. So Holiday took it to tiny indie label Commodore where proprietor Milt Gabler (who later produced Bill Haley's "Rock Around The Clock") gladly accepted the "one-session" contract release Columbia eagerly offered. They recorded on April 20: the raging trumpet intro, sparse piano chords, a final drumbeat like a gallows trapdoor dropping--"The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth... the sudden smell of burning flesh..."

Holiday sang it--"flailing the audience", she wrote in her autobiography--until her drug and drink-sodden death in 1959. Meeropol/Allan remained a teacher, attracting public attention again only when, in 1953, he and his wife adopted the two sons of executed nuclear "spies" Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

When the 78 came out in May, 1939, one reviewer wrote that black revolution in the South "now has its Marseillaise." Wrong, of course. "Strange Fruit" was no marching song. In the '60s, nobody sang it on the road to Montgomery or Washington. But it remained a looming presence, a moral and emotional monument, a nightmare counterpoint when Martin Luther King stepped up to tell America "I have a dream".

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