After the long Civil War (1861-65) ended, white Southerners complained of Yankee occupation and carpetbagger excesses, but the white man’s pain paled in comparison to that suffered by the blacks. The latter often sought relief and solace in music – their own unique version called the blues. Although the blues, as a musical genre, was no doubt born in the cotton fields and partly came from the work songs of cotton pickers, there is never any mention of the word “lynching” in blues lyrics – the word was just too scary to even say out loud. Perhaps the closest mention was in Billie Holiday’s 1939 recording of the song “Strange Fruit.” But even then the ominous word was conspicuously absent.
“Southern trees bear a
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 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.”
Since the song was very short, the producers decided to add a long instrumental introduction of 70 seconds. After recording the song in 1939, Holiday would close all her public performances with it. Because of the power of the song, there were certain rules: the waiters would stop all service in advance; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face; and there would be no encore. During the musical introduction to the song, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer. Holiday said that every time she sang the song, she had to throw up.
Wikipedia explains the origin of this powerful song: “Strange Fruit” originated as a poem written by a white Jewish-American writer, teacher and songwriter named Abel Meeropol, under his pseudonym Lewis Allan, as a protest against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings, inspired by Lawrence Beitler’s photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. He published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine of the Teacher’s Union. Though Meeropol had asked others (notably Earl Robinson) to set his poems to music, he set “Strange Fruit” to music himself. His protest song gained a certain success in and around New York. Meeropol, his wife, and black vocalist Laura Duncan performed it at Madison Square Garden.
Since “Strange Fruit” was recorded by a jazz singer, could we really say it is a blues song? Professor Adam Gussow (himself a blues player) of Ole Miss university and author of Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence in the Blues Tradition, argues in his book that Holiday’s song should not be considered a true blues song, but rather as a protest conjoined with the blues spirit. After all, he points out, the song was written by a white man and was only sung by Billie Holiday, a well-known jazz singer and songwriter. In 1978, Holiday’s version of the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was also included in the list of Songs of the Century, by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts. It was also dubbed “a declaration of war … the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit”