Holiday may have popularized "Strange Fruit" and turned it into a work of art, but it was a Jewish communist teacher and civil rights activist from the Bronx, Abel Meeropol, who wrote it, first as a poem, then later as a song. His inspiration? Meeropol came across a 1930 photo that captured the lynching of two Black men in Indiana. The visceral image haunted him for days and prompted him to put pen to paper. After he published "Strange Fruit" in a teachers union publication, Meeropol composed it into a song and passed it onto a nightclub owner, who then introduced it to Holiday. Continue reading from Biography
Holiday wasn’t immediately sure her audiences would want to hear the song. “I was scared people would hate it,” she wrote in her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. “The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared. There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.” “Strange Fruit” became the centerpiece of Holiday’s set, often performed at the end of the show for maximum effect. As one critic wrote at the time, “The song is by far the most effective cry Miss Holiday’s race has uttered against the injustice of a Christian country.”
Fearing controversy, Holiday’s label, Columbia, opted out of recording the song, so Holiday turned to a smaller label, Commodore, and cut it in 1939. Between its sparse, unconventional arrangement and vivid lyrics, her recording of “Strange Fruit” became a sensation and a hit for Holiday when it was released by Commodore that year.
As music, “Strange Fruit” was hard to categorize. “Is it a blues song?” asks Meeropol’s son Robert. “It has a bluesy introduction, but it’s not rhythm and blues. It’s not blues. It’s not anything. It’s also unlike anything Abel ever wrote musically. I defy anyone to categorize the music.”
One undeniable fact, as Holiday wrote, was that the song took “all the strength out of me” when she sang it. Cassandra Wilson, who has recorded two versions of the song, the first in 1996, agrees: “The problem is not that it’s difficult to sing,” she says. “It’s emotionally draining. When we performed it live, we always did it as the last song. You can’t do anything else after that.” Continue reading from Rolling Stone
Billie Holiday, "Strange Fruit"