We look at the famous anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” most famously sung by Billie Holiday. The song was written in the 1930s not by Holiday–but by a lyricist writing under the pseudonym Lewis Allan. The songwriter was actually Abel Meeropol, a school teacher and union activist living in the Bronx. He wrote the lyrics after being disturbed by a photograph of a lynching. [includes rush transcript]
Years later Meeropol–along wife Anne–adopted the orphaned children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were executed in 1953.
- Strange Fruit, documentary that explores the history and legacy of the song, directed and produced by Joel Katz.
AMY GOODMAN: Coming up, we’re going to Philadelphia, Mississippi, for the trial of the Klansman who has been charged with the murder of the three civil rights activists in Mississippi, Philadelphia,1964. We’ll speak with one of the victims’ mothers, another’s brother. But now, we turn to another excerpt of another documentary about the famous anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” which explores the history and legacy of the song that was adopted as the anthem for the anti-lynching movement. This is an excerpt.
MILT GABLER: It was the year 1939, Billie Holiday came into my shop one day. I had a record shop, Commodore Music Shop. She came in the store very unhappy that Columbia Records was hesitating and didn’t really want to record “Strange Fruit.”
“Strange Fruit” is a very special song. And you wouldn’t look for it to be a big-selling record. And a record company like Columbia Records wanted big sellers. And Billie recorded for them. And they didn’t think “Strange Fruit” would be a commercial success. We set the date. I used the band that accompanied her at the Cafe Society where she was performing the song. And the rest was history.
It’s so striking and important a song, that you set the mood for it. I had the pianist play like an interlude. In fact, I put it on the label “Interlude by Sonny White.” And Billie comes in and does her stuff.
BILLIE HOLIDAY: [singing] Southern trees bear a strange fruit / blood on the leaves and blood at the root / black bodies swinging in the southern breeze / strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
FARAH JASMINE GRIFFIN: People thought that Billie Holiday was born in Baltimore, but she was actually born in Philadelphia. But she was raised in Baltimore. As a young teenager, she came up to Harlem. At that time many, many people were moving to northern cities, and she was one of them. She started working in Harlem nightclubs, singing.
When she first encountered “Strange Fruit” she was in her very early twenties. At the time, Billie Holiday was kind of reluctant to sing it. Some people have said she was reluctant to sing it because she didn’t know what it meant. And that’s an argument that I find incredibly offensive. I think she was reluctant to sing it because it brought up the kinds of harsh images that she didn’t want to necessarily put out there. It was very painful and very difficult. But she was absolutely convinced of the importance of recording the song. And she always said that, from the very beginning.
There’s no evidence that Billie Holiday actually saw a lynching. But she would have grown up with the lore of lynching. It was utterly impossible for her as a black woman, particularly a black woman living in Harlem at that time, not to know about lynching. So she didn’t really have to witness it firsthand to be very sensitive to that crime, that horrendous crime.
DR. C.T. VIVIAN: You hung somebody. You had no real evidence that they had done anything. But you hung them. You even brought a crowd in to enjoy this event. Then you would not only hang them by the neck, but you wanted to rip open their bodies, and did so. You burned them to death, put a fire under them. Often you skinned their very faces. And this was met with applause. The crowd loved it. They were anxious to do it, alright? And men teaching their sons, that 'this is what you do to them,' alright? This is — I don’t know any kind of savagery that is worse than this.
AMY GOODMAN: Civil rights leader C.T. Vivian from the film Strange Fruit, produced by Joel Katz.