Strange Fruit was written as a poem by Abel Meeropol in 1937 under the pseudonym Lewis Allan, named after his two still born children. After changing the title from “Bitter Fruit” and setting it to music, the song was performed in New York by Meeropol’s wife Laura Duncan as a Protest song against lynchings. An associate of Billie Holiday (Born Eleanora Fagan April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959) heard the song and played it for her. Holiday loved it and presented it to Columbia records and her A&R man, the legendary John Hammond. He thought the song was too controversial to record at Columbia so she was given leave to do a one off single with Commodore records. She recorded the song in 1939, the rest is history as it went on to sell more than a million records.
The song itself crossed the line from entertainment to political protest, Nina Simone said of the song “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.” Holiday performed the song last in her set, had the lights turned down with only a spotlight on her face, one club owner extinguishing people’s cigarettes so the glow didn’t distract. Some people walked out, other’s sat in shocked silence but rapturous applause always followed as the intensity of the lyric and Holiday’s performance penetrated the room.
This dramatic performance of the song which I think comes from Chelsea at Nine, a live cabaret TV show from a London theatre, captures Holiday in the last year of her life – she died from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 44 in 1959.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ 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 the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop