Editor's Note: I've written and re-written several introductions to this article over the past 30 minutes, but none of them do this article justice. An introduction isn't necessary, but I believe it's important, to get the point across that this article contains difficult subject matter and how those in the artistic community dealt with a terrible part of our history in the US. If this article doesn't make you feel for the people involved, doesn't make you want to listen to the "song of the century," doesn't make you want to listen to more of the great music of the time, then I can't relate to you. I thank Gilbert for writing about this song, the surrounding circumstances, and including insightful information. If you're familiar with song and the situation, this remains an interesting read and should spark you to do some listening this evening. - CC
In 1999, as the Twentieth Century was winding down, Time
magazine sent its editors and correspondents out on an epic assignment: define, analyze and curate the Twentieth Century. It was to be the story of the century (no pun intended). Time
wanted to present whatever had happened, what preceded it, what succeeded it, and what it meant. All categories were to be considered and evaluated, and as this column is about music, we’ll look at how they rated the music of that volatile, passing century.
They considered beauty and impact, and out of every piece of music written and recorded in the past hundred years, their selection as the most significant song of the century was “Strange Fruit,” by Billie Holiday. While I know there are excellent reasons for their selection, I asked several friends what they knew about the song, and that’s why I feel that not enough people know it. And, as you would surmise, the song has quite a story behind it. So it is both historic and it has a history. Let’s look and listen:
While everyone who knows the song knows it’s by Billie Holiday, not many know who wrote it. She once said she did, but she said a lot of things about this song, and only one of them is that she wrote it. Abel Meeropol wrote it. Who? As iconic as this song has become, it did not come from the conventional center of American song-writing, Tin Pan Alley; Meeropol was a public school teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School
in the Bronx, from which he’d graduated and then came back to teach English.
In the late 1930s, a biographer noted, Meeropol "was very disturbed at the continuation of racism in America, and seeing a photograph of a lynching (warning
: graphic image
) sort of put him over the edge." Saying the photograph "haunted him for days," he wrote a poem about it titled, “Bitter Fruit,” which he had printed in a Teacher’s Union publication (image
). An amateur composer, Meeropol also set his words to music, then performed the song with his wife and another vocalist at a protest rally at Madison Square Garden in 1937. Afterwards, he played it for a New York nightclub owner, who gave it to Billie Holiday.
Ms. Holiday once said she co-wrote it. Later, she said she wrote it; Ms. Holiday had other issues to deal with and this is quibbling in front of a Picasso: why waste your time wondering? This is art, and there need be no discourse: you listen. What you’re listening to—and what has the critics so enamored—is what it makes you think; or more, what it makes you feel.
And what are the “strange fruit”? American negroes hanging in trees. They were called something less kind by the men who put them there. I could have said that other thing, but that’s what they were- not people, not neighbors, not men with families who loved and depended on them, not members of the community. No, just some negroes, hanging from trees in the thin morning light.
Listen for the sadness, listen for the accusation, listen for the pain. The song was first performed in Madison Square Garden in 1937 by Meeropol with his wife and a black vocalist, and recorded in 1939 by Ms. Holiday, at a time when Hitler was throwing Europe into chaos and race relations here deteriorated even further. Because I wasn’t there, I can’t tell you how it struck the nation when they heard it or how they reacted. Today, of course, it would be viral, but back then black recording artists had limited outlets. Few radio stations played black artists, so there were few places they could be heard, and where they could be heard were places most white people wouldn’t go until later years when Ms. Holiday’s fame had reached into white culture. Two young men were taken from their friends, their families and their lives and hanged for no other reason than the color of their skin, and although their names may be forgotten, a song about their fate became the song of the century, so let us never forget the power of music, of a song.
Because of the power of the song, Barney Josephson drew up some rules: Holiday would close with it; 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, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, as if she were evoking a prayer.
Listen to it. Feel it. Hear the most significant piece of music of the late, great, Twentieth Century.
• Meeropol cited the photograph of the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, August 7, 1930, as inspiring his poem (warning
: graphic image
• Barney Josephson, the founder of Cafe Society
in Greenwich Village, New York's first integrated nightclub, heard the song and introduced it to Billie Holiday. Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939.
• She said that singing it made her fearful of retaliation but, because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing the piece, making it a regular part of her live performances.
• Meeropol published his work under the pseudonym of "Lewis Allan" in memory of the names of his two stillborn children. Later, he and his wife Anne adopted Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's two sons, Michael and Robert
, who were orphaned after their parents' executions. Both Michael and Robert took the Meeropol surname.
• Julius and Ethel Rosenberg
were tried as spies for the Soviets and despite protests, were executed amid a surge of national anti-soviet paranoia.
• Meeropol wrote countless poems and songs, including the Frank Sinatra and Josh White hit "The House I Live In." He also wrote the libretto of Robert Kurka's opera The Good Soldier Schweik
(1957), which was premiered in 1958 by the New York City Opera.
• Holiday approached her recording label, Columbia, about the song, but the company feared reaction by record retailers in the South, as well as negative reaction from affiliates of its co-owned radio network, CBS. When Holiday's producer John Hammond also refused to record it, she turned to her friend Milt Gabler, whose Commodore label produced alternative jazz. Holiday sang "Strange Fruit" for him a cappella
, and moved him to tears. Columbia gave Holiday a one-session release from her contract so she could record it; Frankie Newton's eight-piece Cafe Society Band was used for the session. Because Gabler worried the song was too short, he asked pianist Sonny White to improvise an introduction. Gabler worked out a special arrangement with Vocalion Records to record and distribute the song.
• Holiday recorded two major sessions of the song at Commodore, one in 1939 and one in 1944. The 1939 recording eventually sold a million copies, in time becoming Holiday's biggest-selling recording.
• In October 1939, Samuel Grafton of The New York Post
said of "Strange Fruit": "If the anger of the exploited ever mounts high enough in the South, it now has its Marseillaise."
• According to son Robert Meeropol, royalties from the songs "Strange Fruit" and "The House I Live In," along with the Peggy Lee hit "Apples, Peaches and Cherries," provided most of the family’s income.
• In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues
, Holiday suggested that she, together with Meeropol, her accompanist Sonny White, and arranger Danny Mendelsohn, set the poem to music. The writers David Margolick and Hilton Als dismissed that claim in their work Strange Fruit: The Biography of a Song
, writing that hers was "an account that may set a record for most misinformation per column inch." When challenged, Holiday—whose autobiography had been ghostwritten by William Dufty —claimed, "I ain't never read that book."
• New York lawmakers didn't like "Strange Fruit." In 1940, Meeropol was called to testify before a committee investigating communism in public schools. They wanted to know whether the American Communist Party had paid him to write the song. They had not — but, like many New York teachers in his day, Meeropol was a member of the Communist Party. Margolick*says, "There are a million reasons to disparage communism now. But American Communism, one point it had in its favor was that it was concerned about civil rights very early."
• Meeropol left his teaching job at Dewitt Clinton in 1945. He eventually quit the Communist Party.
• 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. In 2002, The Library of Congress honored the song as one of 50 recordings chosen that year to add to the National Recording Registry.
• Abel Meeropol died on October 29, 1986, at the Jewish Nursing Home in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
• A partial list of artists who have recorded the song (with links to their versions):
, Lou Rawls
, Nina Simone
, Diana Ross
, Robert Wyatt
, The Gun Club
, Sting with Gil Evans
, Siouxsie and the Banshees,
Stan Campbell, Tori Amos
, Marcus Miller
, Cassandra Wilson
, John Martyn
, Cocteau Twins
, Elkie Brooks, Karan Casey
, Pine Valley Cosmonauts, The Twilight Singers
, This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb
, Jeff Buckley
, Snowman, Flowers Forever, Jackie Richardson
, Dee Dee Bridgewater
, René Marie
, Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa
, Nona Hendryx
, Kanye West
uses a sample of Nina Simone's version, Claire Johnston
, Annie Lennox
, and Katey Sagal
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE
about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101
. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.