‘Strange Fruit’ is a song written by Abel Meeropol (under the pseudonym Lewis Allan) and the best known version is that sung by Billie Holiday in 1939 with an arrangement by Milt Gabler.
Originally Meeropol wrote the song as a poem, ‘Bitter Fruit’, that was published in ‘The New York Teacher’ a magazine published by a teaching union in 1937. Meeropol felt compelled to write the piece after seeing a newspaper photo of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith.
Meeropol later set the work to music and it was sung by his wife, Laura Duncan, at a labour meeting in Madison Square Garden. It was this performance that was heard by Barney Josephson owner of the Cafe Society venue who introduced the song to Holiday, although some sources state that it was Robert Gordon who was Holiday’s musical director that suggested the song to her.
Holiday first sung the song in 1939 and was fearful of retaliation but continued to perform it. Josephson and Holiday also agreed on some rules, because of the power of the song. Waiters would stop serving before the song. The room would be in darkness apart from one light on Holiday’s face and it would be the final song with no encore.
Columbia records refused to let Holiday record the song, fearing a backlash in the South. John Hammond Holiday’s producer also refused to record the song, so Billie turned to Milt Gabler of Commodore records, a label that released more alternative jazz, singing the song for him a cappella he instantly agreed to release it. Holiday was granted a one session release from Columbia to record for Commodore.
Gabler’s only concern was that the song in it’s original form was too short and he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction. The eight piece Cafe Society band’s performance is very restrained, the power they are capable of is only hinted at.
The power of this recording comes from Holiday’s precise execution of the lyrics. She isn’t singing to an audience or a room, or even to the microphone. Rather she is singing to the listener directly forcing you to think about each word and it’s meaning.
In 2002 Holiday’s recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. While in 1999 ‘Time’ Magazine voted it the best song of the century.
However rather than being just being a song from the past ‘Strange Fruit’ is still relevant today, the singer Rebecca Ferguson said she would only perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration if she could sing ‘Strange Fruit’ her request was denied and she will not perform.
A video of Billie Holiday performing ‘Strange Fruit’.