“Strange Fruit”, performed by Billie Holiday, is commonly tied to a photograph taken by Lawrence Beitler of a lynching in Marion, Indiana on August 7, 1930. Billie Holiday first performed the song in a night club, Cafe Society in New York in 1939(Margolick). After gaining widespread popularity, Holiday recorded the song and it was released later that year (Margolick). Strange Fruit became an anthem for the anti-lynching movement.
History of a Song
“Strange Fruit” began as a poem written by a Jewish school teacher, Abel Meeropol. Meeropol wrote under a different name, Lewis Allen (Margolick). The poem was published to the New York Teacher and Marxist journal The New Massesinin 1936 (Shmoop). Meeropol asked others to make the poem a song, after repeated failed attempts, Meeropol eventually set his poem to music himself (Radio Diaries). His wife, Ann, was the first to perform the song, followed by a quartet of black singers (Margolick). Another singer of the song was Laura Duncan, a black vocalist. The most notable performance by Duncan was at Madison Square Garden. It was at Madison Square Garden where Billie Holiday’s director heard the song and asked her to sing it at the night club she performed at (Margolick). She performed at Cafe Society three nights a week (Radio Diaries). She began to sing the song, and it soon became the closing act for Billie Holiday’s set (Margolick). The first time she sang the song, she recalled in her autobiography In her autobiography, "There wasn't even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began clapping nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping" (Shmoop). The song became known to immediately silence a crowd. It was staged with only a single spotlight on Billie Holiday's face (Margolick). The song rapidly gained popularity and soon a recorded version was needed. So in April 1939, Holiday and her band took four hours to record "Strange Fruit" (Margolick). By July, the song had reached number 16 on the charts (Radio Diaries). The song will continure to live on in the hearts of millions while it still portrays a very important message.
The photograph taken by Lawrence Beiter has become repeatedly tied to “Strange Fruit." The song is used in documentaries, movies, and plays. The Beitler photograph is of two black men lynched in Marion, Indiana. This picture had become the face of lynching. It is a theory that the writer of “Strange Fruit”, Abel Meeropol, was inspired to write the poem once he saw the famous photograph by Lawrence Beitler (Radio Diaries). There is no definitive evidence that this theory is true, but it is possible since the photo was so widely popular and was circulated nationwide (Madison).
Writing "Strange Fruit"
"I wrote 'Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it," Meeropol stated. Although Meeropol had written the poem, there had been other stories about who wrote the famous song. Billie Holiday had claimed once that she had wrote the song in her autobiography (Margolick). She later retracted that statement and said, "I ain't never read that book," but her publisher had Holiday read and sign every page of her autobiography (Margolick). Meeropol, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Allan, was the actual author of the song. Abel Meeropol was an English teacher at De Witt Clintion High School in New York for over twenty-seven years. It had seemed that Meeropol lead a double life, one being a school teacher and the othe being a writer of plays, poems, musicals, and ballads (Radio Diaries).
1.Madison, James H.. A Lynching in the Heartland: Race and Memory in America. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Print.
2.Margolick, David . Strange Fruit. Philidelphia: Harper Collins, 2000. Print.
3.Diaries, Radio. "Strange Fruit: Anniversary Of A Lynching : NPR." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 May 2011. <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129025516>.
4."Strange Fruit Meaning." Shmoop: Homework Help, Teacher Resources, Test Prep. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 May 2011. <http://www.shmoop.com/strange-fruit/meaning.html>.
This article was written by Haley Jordan during May 2011.