Originally written as a poem “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol became a song performed famously by Billie Holiday. Meeropol, a white, Jewish high school teacher from the Bronx and a member of the Communist Party wrote it as a protest against lynchings.
His inspiration came from the photograph by Lawrence Beitler of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Shipp and Smith were African American men who were taken from jail by a mob, beaten then lynched on 7 August 1930. Meeropol said that the photograph had haunted him for days.
He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937.
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.
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 the 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.
Meeropol who wrote under the pen name “Lewis Allan “eventually set it to music and he and his wife along with singer Laura Duncan, performed it as a protest song in New York venues in the late 1930s. Meeropol played it for a New York club owner — who ultimately gave it to Billie Holiday.
Billie Holiday first performed the song at the popular cabaret club, Café Society in 1939. Café Society was New York’s only truly integrated nightclub, a place catering to progressive types with open minds. Holiday said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father who died of pneumonia in 1937 after several segregated southern hospitals refused to treat him, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances.
The song became a cry for civil rights. The late jazz writer Leonard Feather once called “Strange Fruit” “the first significant protest in words and music, the first unmuted cry against racism.”