Billie Holiday Records 'Strange Fruit', 1939
A deceptively disturbing song. Sung slowly as if it were merely another sad ballad to a lost love. A voice of warm silk reflecting upon a painful memory. But this is all but a sweet pudding meant to mask the bitter pill of the lyrics.
Southern trees bear 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.
Strange Fruit is so closely associate with Billie Holiday many assume that she wrote the song. In fact, the lyrics were first published in 1937 as a poem, Bitter Fruit, written by a white, Jewish, New York City school teacher, Abel Meeropol. Meeropol, also an amateur musician, set the poem to music and played it for his friend, Barney Josephson, owner of the integrated jazz club Cafe Society. Josephson connected Meeropol and Holiday. A week later Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society.
Fearing the reaction of southern record retailers Columbia, Holiday's recording label, refused to produce the song. But Columbia released Holiday from her contract for one session for Commodore Records. Strange Fruit sold 10,000 copies in the first week of its release and eventually reached #16 on the Billboard charts.
If the beauty of Holiday's voice distracts the listener from the imagery of the first stanza, the remainder of Meeropol's lyrics lay bare their terrible subject:
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
The Strange Story of the Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'
Strange Fruit Is Still a Song for Today
For a few more pictures of Billie Holiday and Cafe Society, visit the KultureKat Pinterest board below:
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And here is a 1959 performance of the song that Time later named as the greatest of the 20th century.