Controversial, powerful, “Strange Fruit” is one of the few songs considered to have genuinely contributed to improving race relations in the 20th century. The song was originally written as a poem by schoolteacher Abel Meeropol who had seen a photograph that depicted the lynching of two black men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Adopting the pen name Lewis Allan he wrote the famous lines “Southern trees bear a strange fruit, blood on the leaves and blood at the root”.
The poem was picked up by 24 year old Billie Holiday via New York night club owner Barney Josephson, and immediately wanted to add music. However, her record company refused to allow the singer to release a song they considered lyrically inflammatory. She moved to a new label (Commodore), and eventually released the song in 1939, whereupon it was adopted by the anti-lynching movement.
As Holiday performed the song live, she was often abused both verbally and physically by angry music hall, nightclub and bar patrons. Radio stations refused to play it, and Time magazine described the song as “A prime piece of musical propaganda”. The record was sent by activists to many U.S. congressmen and would become a rallying cry against racism. Samuel Grafton wrote in the New York Post that same year, “If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise”. Abel Meeropol’s adopted son, Michael, told PBS “Until the last racist is dead “Strange Fruit” is relevant”.