"Strange Fruit" (01:32)
The lyrics of the song made famous by Billie Holiday, referred to lynching. The song caused such controversy when it was first heard, that producers and radio stations wanted nothing to do with it. The song became synonymous with the black Civil Rights Movement.
Recording Session (02:21)
Holiday approached record producer Milt Gabler in 1939, upset that Columbia Records had balked at recording her song. Gabler set up a session for April 20, using the band that had been backing Holiday at Café Society. He added a melancholy piano intro, played by Sonny White.
Rise of Lynching (05:01)
There is no evidence Holiday had witnessed a lynching, but she would have grown-up hearing stories of southern blacks being tortured, hanged, and mutilated by mobs. This form of terrorism grew in popularity during the Reconstruction Era, when southern whites felt blacks were making too many social gains.
Café Society and Anti-Lynching Movement
Around the time Holiday first heard “Strange Fruit” she was performing at Café Society. Barney Josephson founded New York’s first racially integrated venue in 1938. The anti-lynching movement had been going on for some time before the song’s release; federal anti-lynching legislation was never written into law. Holiday would have sung her hit at segregated venues.
Song Origins (08:47)
Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx, wrote “Strange Fruit.” An early version appeared as a poem (“Bitter Fruit”) in a teacher’s union publication; Café Society’s publicist heard the song at a local cabaret performance. Folk singer Pete Seeger felt that one of the indicators of the song’s greatness was that so many people could readily put their spin on it.
Communist Witch Hunt (03:16)
Meeropol was called before New York’s Rapp-Coudert Committee in 1940 and asked whether the Communist Party had commissioned “Strange Fruit.” Folk singer Josh White faced similar scrutiny a decade later and read the song’s lyrics for the Congressional Record.
"House I Live In" (02:29)
“Strange Fruit” remained Meeropol’s most well-known composition, though he wrote thousands of poems, librettos, plays and songs. Frank Sinatra popularized “The House I Live In.” Sinatra omitted the lyric “my neighbors, black and white.”
Murders and Adoption (06:58)
A white mob gunned down two black couples on July 25, 1946 near the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Monroe, Georgia. The crime garnered national attention, but the killers were never caught. Abel and Anne Meeropol adopted sons Michael and Robert; their birth parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,
Authorship, Performance, and Death (04:55)
Doubleday published “Lady Sings the Blues,” in 1956. Holliday claimed Meeropol wrote the lyrics pf “Strange Fruit” for her and that she and Sonny White wrote the music. Holiday continued to sing “Strange Fruit” during the McCarthy Era; she died in 1959 at the age of 44.
"Strange Fruit" and Civil Rights Movement (01:40)
The Civil Rights Movement adopted new anthems in the 1960s. “Strange Fruit” was heard less frequently, but was not forgotten thanks to new interpretations by Nina Simone and Carmen McRae.
Meeropol's Death and "Without Sanctuary" (04:32)
Meeropol suffered from Alzheimer’s disease toward the end of his life and died in 1986; renewed interest in his song followed. The lynching photography exhibit opened in January 2000. It went on tour, confronting viewers with the country’s legacy of racial mob violence.
Lingering Relevance (03:31)
Many late 20th century headlines served as reminders of the enduring relevance of “Strange Fruit,” including, the New York police shooting of Amadou Diallo and the gruesome lynching of James Byrd in Texas. Seeger marveled at the depth of emotion that can be conveyed by a brief song.
"Strange Fruit" Remakes (04:23)
Jazz singer Cassandra Wilson and her band deliver a soulful, bluesy rendition of “Strange Fruit.” Ella Fitzgerald, Jeff Buckley, Tori Amos, Terence Blanchard, Sting, and many more have put their spin on Meeropol and Holiday’s landmark recording song.
Credits: Strange Fruit (01:58)
Credits: Strange Fruit
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