A strange and bitter song captures an equally strange and bittersweet history.
In January, X Factor star Rebecca Ferguson said she would sing at Donald Trump’s inauguration— on one condition. Ferguson demanded to perform Billie Holiday’s famous jazz tune “Strange Fruit.”
Ferguson’s demand was not so much a request, but a remark. Since the song is known for its anti-racist message, the gesture spoke to current racial tensions. These racial tensions have roots that span long and far in American life.
“Strange Fruit” first appeared at Café Society in Greenwich Village New York in 1939. As a new club, it was the first racially integrated venue in America. A nervous Billie Holiday spilled the lyrics of the song like honey to a crowd that only apprehensively applauded.
“Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,” are some of the song’s lyrics, conjuring the image of a recent lynching. A vivid and dark depiction of reality at the time.
For context, 1939 was a year of high racial tension. Segregation was common thanks to Jim Crow laws, racial discrimination was legal, and lynching still took place. It is the year John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath was published, and L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz first dazzled viewers with its Technicolor premiere.
At this time it was risky to speak about racial problems. America was worming its way out of the Great Depression and using art as escape. Unemployment for blacks soared above 50 per cent. And while many clubs employed black talent, people of colour were mostly banned from attending venues as patrons. Music was one of the few ways people of colour could speak freely. In this climate, “Strange Fruit” rose to protest racism through music— long before the protest song became popularized in the 1960s.
But this watershed song did not come to be without its share of tension.
“Strange Fruit” was first published as “Bitter Fruit”— a poem by a Jewish American teacher named Abel Meeropol in 1937. Meeropol became inspired to write the poem after seeing a photo of the infamous lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. In 1930 the men were arrested for robbing and murdering a white factory worker. The next day Smith and Shipp were dragged from their jail cells, beaten, and lynched by a mob.
The image is especially haunting because folks gather around the two hanging men, as one man points proudly to Smith and Shipp, as if to signal his prize. Another man in the crowd smiles at the camera.
This scene resonated with the Bronx teacher and writer, even as an outwardly visible white Jewish man. “I wrote “Strange Fruit” because I hate lynching, and I hate injustice, and I hate the people who perpetuate it,” Meeropol said, according to The Guardian.
Although Meeropol changed his name to Lewis Allan in order to publish songs and poems because he was Jewish, the song was still risky to popularize. In 1940, the teacher was brought upon a New York court to testify whether or not the American Communist Party paid him to write the song. They did not, but Meeropol was a communist against racism. He eventually left both teaching and the Communist Party after the trial.
When “Strange Fruit” landed in Billie Holiday’s hands, it met further resistance. Holiday’s record company, Columbia Records, refused to record the tune. The company feared poor sales in the South and negative reactions from CBS. John Hammond, Holiday’s producer, also refused to produce the song.
However, thanks to an a cappella performance, “Strange Fruit” brought one of Holiday’s friends to tears. That friend, Milt Gabler, worked for an alternative jazz label called Commodore. The song was then recorded as a one-session release by Vocalion Records, and sold a million copies. It was Holiday’s best selling record.
Since then, the song has been covered by the likes of Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, Sting and John Martyn. The song was also sampled on Kanye’s 2013 Yeezus album.
“It deals with America and the black and white problem, the ugliness of it. That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard. 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,” said Nina Simone toward the end of the civil rights movement in 1969.
“It really opens up the wound completely raw when you think of a man hanging from a tree and to call him—strange fruit.”
A solo and sparse piano often accompanied most of Simone’s version, creating a sharp eeriness. Though Holiday’s original recording featured Café Society’s eight-piece band, the arrangement was still selective. The emphasis of the song is undoubtedly on the words, and the heart-wrenching emotionality of its singer.
In darkness, Holiday would end her shows on “Strange Fruit.” The owner of Café Society insisted on no service during the tune and no encores—that way patrons could think about the song’s meaning. Holiday said the song would wrench her to vomit in the bathroom after her performances. She had also said the song’s imagery reminded her of her own father.
In 1999, “Strange Fruit” was named song of the century by Time Magazine. And The Library of Congress added the song to its catalog in its first year of operation in 2002. The library said, “It brought the topic of lynching to the commercial record-buying public.”
Through many accomplishments in its near 80-year history, “Strange Fruit” continues to incite friction today. While Rebecca Ferguson made her demand for the famous song, she did not perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony.