|Single by Billie Holiday|
|"Fine and Mellow"|
|Recorded||April 20, 1939|
|Billie Holiday singles chronology|
"Strange Fruit" is a song performed most famously by Billie Holiday, who first sang and recorded it in 1939. Written by teacher Abel Meeropol as a poem and published in 1937, it protested American racism, particularly the lynching of African Americans. Such lynchings had reached a peak in the South at the turn of the century, but continued there and in other regions of the United States. According to the Tuskegee Institute, 1,953 Americans were murdered by lynching, about three quarters of them black. The lyrics are an extended metaphor linking a tree's fruit with lynching victims. Meeropol set it to music and, with his wife and the singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York City venues in the late 1930s, including Madison Square Garden.
The song continues to be covered by numerous artists, including Nina Simone, UB40, Jeff Buckley, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Dee Dee Bridgewater and has inspired novels, other poems, and other creative works. In 1978, Holiday's version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. Lyricist E. Y. Harburg referred to the song as a "historical document". It was also dubbed, "a declaration of war ... the beginning of the civil rights movement" by record producer Ahmet Ertegun.
"Strange Fruit" was originated as a poem written by American writer, teacher and songwriter Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler's photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title "Bitter Fruit" in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine. Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set "Strange Fruit" to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.
The lyrics are under copyright but have been republished in full in an academic journal, with permission.
Barney Josephson, the founder of Café Society in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Other reports say that Robert Gordon, who was directing Billie Holiday's show at Cafe Society, heard the song at Madison Square Garden and introduced it to her. Holiday first performed the song at Café Society in 1939. She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances. Because of the power of the song, Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS. When Holiday's producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella, and moved him to tears. Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release from her contract so she could record it; Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band was used for the session. Because Gabler worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction. On the recording, Holiday starts singing after 70 seconds. Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.
Holiday recorded two major sessions of the song at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The song was highly regarded; the 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies, in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling recording.
In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday suggested that she, together with Meeropol, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick and Hilton Als dismissed that claim in their work Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song, writing that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch". When challenged, Holiday--whose autobiography had been ghostwritten by William Dufty--claimed, "I ain't never read that book."
Billie Holiday was so well known for her rendition of "Strange Fruit" that "she crafted a relationship to the song that would make them inseparable".
Notable cover versions of this song include Nina Simone,René Marie,Jeff Buckley.Siouxsie and the Banshees,Dee Dee Bridgewater, and UB40. Nina Simone dramatized "Strange Fruit" in the context of the Civil Rights movement with a plain and unsentimental voice. Journalist Lara Pellegrinelli wrote that Jeff Buckley while singing it "seems to meditate on the meaning of humanity the way Walt Whitman did, considering all of its glorious and horrifying possibilities". Rene Marie's rendition was coupled with Confederate anthem "Dixie", making for an "uncomfortable juxtaposition", according to Pellegrinelli. Siouxsie and the Banshees's version was selected by the Mojo magazine staff to be included on the compilation Music Is Love: 15 Tracks That Changed The World .