Strange Fruit, the first song to crash headlong into the horrors of racism in the USA:-
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body 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 magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
This was a poem written by a New York Jew by the name of Abel Meeropol, who wrote it in 1937 as a reaction to seeing the photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana.
Seeing this image of those two dead men so upset him that he couldn’t sleep or function for days after seeing it, so he had no choice but to write the poem as a sort of catharsis. He first published it in a Teacher’s Union magazine (he was a teacher), and then felt he needed to take it further, and wanted someone to set it to music, but no one was game to take on such a sensitive and potentially dangerous task, so he did it himself.
He then played it to a friend of his who ran the Cafe Society in New York (the first integrated jazz club in the USA), who was so taken with it that he played it to Billy Holiday, who was also much moved by the song, as for obvious reasons it resonated strongly with her.
So it was decided that she would sing it as part of her act in that club, but as all concerned were scared of the reaction it might cause (it was about a topic that was not discussed in public at the time, a deep shame in the USA), it was decided that she would end her act with this song, and give no encores either, and that service in the club would cease as she sang the song, and she would be lit by one spotlight.
In fact, on the first evening when she sang this song, a party of white women in the club were so angry about the song that they shouted and screamed at her to stop singing and complained strongly to the club management about allowing Billy Holiday to sing such a ¨disgusting”song.
For her part, Billy Holiday later said that she was extremely scared about singing it, and had to go to the lavatory each time and be sick.
So, Billy Holiday was the first person to record this powerful and disturbing song, which she dd in 1939, only a matter of months after it had been written, and amazingly it was a huge success… over a million copies of the first version were sold.
So, for your enjoyment, if that is the correct word to use for this dreadful song, here is her version of it.
Not much one can say after hearing that is there?
Obviously a song such as this has been recorded by a lot of other people since Billy Holiday made her version, so without any comments, here are a number of interesting versions I have come across, all powerful and interesting in their differing ways.
This next one has an interesting and heartfelt introduction from Morgan Freeman who discusses this song at some length before introducing the singer – Jill Scott.
And now a very different version sung by Jose James (who builds his own accompaniment as you will hear).
And now, to finish this short selection of versions of Strange Fruit, here is the other main and most powerful version, Nina Simone.
My apologies for the appalling images that accompany this version… Unbearable, but apposite.
To finish this look at this disturbing song, I append a note about the author of the song, a most extraordinary man in so many ways.
Abel Meeropol was also the adoptive father of the two sons (Robert 6 and Michael 10) of the husband and wife Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed in 1953 for espionage.
It is worth reading more about him, as he was a very interesting and humane man, a very exceptional person.