If you have never heard Billie Holiday’s rendition of the anti-lynching anthem, “Strange Fruit,” take a break from this story for a moment and download it for your iPod. If you are less technologically oriented, buy a CD or check out an album from the library. The song reaches out across the decades and speaks volumes.
Once you’ve heard it and felt the chill climbing your spine, the tale of how it came to be is worth knowing. It opens a window into a time when blacks and Jews both felt the sting of discrimination in the Land of the Free every day, and the sometimes shaky relationships they forged to combat it.
Lynchings were a fact of life for African Americans in the U.S. in the decades that followed the end of the civil war. They were part and parcel of the everyday reign of terror that “kept the colored in his place.” While writers as far back as Mark Twain railed against the horrific activity as a blight on civilized society, Congress had resisted a number of attempts to make the summary hangings and mutilations a federal crime.
By the 1930s the number of such incidents had fallen sharply from their heyday, though lynchings, and the threat of them continued on, at least occasionally, as late as the 1960s. According to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, more than 4,700 lynchings were documented in the U.S. between 1882 and 1968, though the Web site notes that “it is likely that many more unrecorded lynchings occurred in this period.”
Vanity Fair contributing editor David Margolick, who has literally written the book on the story, was at Seattle’s Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in early December. He appeared as part of the Nextbook series lecture series to talk about Abel Meeropol, the largely forgotten poet and songwriter who penned the song, and how Billie Holiday came to make it her own.
Meeropol, who is best remembered for having adopted the sons of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, was a Jewish schoolteacher and a member of the Communist Party. He wrote the poem that was to become “Strange Fruit” in the late 1930s, inspired, he said years later, by a news picture of a lynching from the Deep South.
Meeropol wrote and published numerous poems and songs under the pen name Lewis Allan, in memory of his two still-born children. He first published the poem in the New York Teacher in 1936 and it was later reprinted in the Communist magazine New Masses. After he set the poem to music it was performed in the Catskill resorts of upstate New York, before a nightclub owner brought Meeropol in to sing it to the up and coming Billie Holiday in 1939.
In addition to “Strange Fruit,” his best known work was “The House I Live In,” which was recorded by Frank Sinatra. (The short film of the same name, a protest of anti-Semitism in postwar America that featured Sinatra, won a special Academy Award in 1945.)
Setting the stage for an early, soulful recording of Holiday’s rendering of the song, Margolick described his performance at the club, Café Society in Greenwich Village, where Holiday appeared for several months.
“Strange Fruit” was already popular by then — at the end of the set, the lights would come down and in the near total darkness, the singer would be illuminated by a single spotlight as she began her slow, plaintive rendition of the ballad:
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. …
When the final chord was struck the singer exited from the stage without another word.
Among the popular myths that Margolick punctured was that Holiday had composed the music for the song — or, as some versions have it, co-wrote the music with Sonny White. In fact, he said, Meeropol wrote the tune and, in later years made repeated efforts to set the record straight on that point.
The myth of Billie Holiday’s role in penning the song went as far as her (or her ghostwriter) claiming some of the credit in her autobiography, and a scene in the film bio, Lady Sings the Blues, which at minimum implies that she actually wrote the song herself.
Margolick also explained that the song was not a big hit, at least not in the late ‘30s, when it first gained prominence. One source reports it only reached No. 16 on the Billboard pop music charts. He also quoted the anonymous music reviewer for Time magazine, who wrote up one of Holiday’s performances at Café Society, who called the song “a prime piece of musical propaganda.”
Answering a question from the audience, he said he did not think the reviewer was attacking the song or displaying a racist reaction, so much as trying too hard to appear hip in what was, at the time, a major arbiter of cultural and social tastes.
Margolick also spoke about the period in which the song came about. He reminded the audience, many of whom were too young to remember even the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, that in those days racial segregation was not only commonplace but the law of the land in many states. Even in the north, he said, black people were not allowed to go to the same clubs and restaurants that whites frequented.
In Harlem, he said, where performers like Cab Calloway headlined, the audience was segregated and African Americans were unwelcome. One club, Café Society, Margolick added, was unique in those days for allowing black and white patrons to mingle and sit together.
Margolick also spoke about the somewhat strained coalition that existed between the Jewish and African American communities. Jews were the storekeepers and landlords in black neighborhoods, though they did come together in a struggle against the biases of the majority society. He said Jews appealed to the NAACP for support of a boycott of Max Schmeling, the German heavyweight champion who was seen as representing the Nazi regime in the years before World War II. He quoted the long-time civil rights leader Roy Wilkins, who said for many Jews, their support of blacks was limited to giving the doormen and elevator operators a five-dollar bill at Christmas time, as saying that more would be expected from the Jewish community in supporting their struggle, as well.