Black History Month: Day 22 – Lady Day Sings of Lynching

The song “Strange Fruit” was originally a poem written and published in 1937.  It was written by English teacher Abel Meeropol under his pen name Lewis Allan.  Inspired by the photograph of two African American men who were lynched while surrounded by a large crowd of White Americans, it protested American racial violence (specifically lynching).  Meeropol originally published the poem under the title “Bitter Fruit” in 1937 in The New York Teacher, a union magazine.  The lyrics are an extended metaphor linking a tree’s fruit with lynching victims.

The 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith

This image depicts the 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith and the attempted lynching of James Cameron. Credit: Lawrence H. Beitler.

The song is most famously performed by Billie Holiday, who first performed the song at Cafe Society in 1939. Holiday was initially fearful of retaliation (for sending an anti-racist song), but because its imagery reminded her of her father, she continued to sing it.  She performed the song regularly, but there were rules involved in the performance: 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.

Clarence Holiday, Billie Holiday’s father died because he was denied medical treatment for a fatal lung disorder due to racial prejudice.  Singing “Strange Fruit” reminded her of the incident. “It reminds me of how Pop died, but I have to keep singing it, not only because people ask for it, but because twenty years after Pop died the things that killed him are still happening in the South,” she wrote in her autobiography.

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 producers at Columbia found the subject matter too sensitive, Milt Gabler agreed to record it for his Commodore Records label on April 20, 1939. “Strange Fruit” remained in her repertoire for twenty years.  “Strange Fruit” eventually sold a million copies, in time becoming Holiday’s biggest-selling recording.  Celebrated African American vocalist Nina Simone, as well as several other artists have covered the song at various times throughout history.

Travelbox History Corner will resume again tomorrow.

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