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Strange Fruit
Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday

"In this sad, shadowy song about lynching in the South, history's greatest jazz singer comes to terms with history itself".

So Time magazine wrote in 1999 when they voted "Strange Fruit" the Song of the Century. The jazz singer referred to was Billie Holiday who came to be so closely associated with the song that she claimed to have had a hand in creating it and that it was written specifically for her.

However its origins lie completely independently from the artist who would so successfully make the song her own. A Jewish teacher Robert Meeropol was in fact the person responsible for the words and later the tune. Meeropol who wrote under the pen-name of LewisAllan,was however very gracious about Holiday taking the credit as his adopted son Robert Meeropol reveals:

Robert Meeropol
"He made excuses for her, she had a hard life"

The first incarnation of "Strange Fruit" was a poem entitled Bitter Fruit that had been written after Meeropol saw a photo of a double lynching in Median, Indiana. These lynchings of black people whose lives ended inhumanely hung from a tree, were all too commonplace in the Deep South of 1930s America.
Meeropol took the song to Barney Josephson who was owner of the very liberal Café Society in Greenwich Village:

Billie Holiday
"I read the lyrics, I was just floored by them"

"Strange Fruit" was a huge departure from the love songs Holiday normally sang, it was also the first time a black artist had dared to sing such controversial lyrics. Her mother pleaded for her to drop the song but her daughter explained that it could make things better, "but you'll be dead" her mother replied.

The record was widely banned, even by the BBC, but as Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun claimed it was tantamount to "a declaration of war…the beginning of the Civil Rights movement". David Margolick who wrote a book about "Strange Fruit", explains just how shocking the song was in the early Forties:

Strange Fruit, David Margolick
"There was this moment of silence after she finished"

The intense atmosphere of the song deters analysis of its musical content, aside from the enormous social impact of its radical lyric. We can say that this minor key lament is slow, bluesy and unsentimental, providing an austere musical canvas. The melody rises through the third stanza, where a putrid flattened fifth is saved to scar the middle of the final word "fruit".
Dominic King

Holiday's label Columbia Records refused to record the track but they did allow her to record it with Milt Gabler on his Commodore label. So it came to be that April 20 1939 Billie and her band recorded it in New York along with "Fine and Mellow" for the other side. It took four hours to complete and was released later making #16 in the Billboard Top 20, despite it costing 25 cents more than a normal single.

Holiday was very territorial about "Strange Fruit" and when black folk artist Josh White recorded another version a few years later she allegedly threatened him not to sing it. White, who had had first-hand experience of a lynching as a child persuaded her that they both needed to sing the song to get the message across so it need never be sung again.

... it doesn't hit you between the eyes, it kind of sidles up on you.

Michael Parkinson

  Listen to Michael Parkinson

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Songwriting tips

The seed of this song was a photo. Get more tips on inspiration in our Ideas guide.
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Have a go at the "Strange Fruit" quiz!

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